This is a guest post by Prof. Aaron Ahuvia. Aaron is Professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. His other appointments include an Associate Professorship at the School of Art and Design on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, a regular Visiting Professor’s appointment at the Ross School of Business where he teaches Social Marketing. He received his PhD in Marketing from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School. Aaron’s research, published in the leading academic journals, looks at (a) consumers’ love of certain brands; (b) issues related to brand symbolism and consumer identity such as brand image, fashions, and trends; and (c) the nature of contemporary consumer culture with a special focus on how people can build successful lives within this environment. Professor Ahuvia has been quoted in Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and has appeared on public radio talk shows as well as popular Television shows such as Oprah.
People throw the word love around a lot, talking about everything from activities (“l love skiing,”) to products (“I just love your new dress”), to abstractions (“I love my freedom too much to settle down”). Marketers have always done the same, promising customers that they will love whatever the marketer has on offer. While the 1960s have sometimes been called “the decade of love,” for marketers our decade of love may have really begun in 2000. An analysis of advertising I conducted in 2009, showed that the number of advertising campaigns including the word “love” almost tripled between the years 2000-2008. Is all this talk of love just colorful exaggeration? Or is something more serious going on?
Through 20 years of research, I have concluded that consumers can and do love things other than people. Over 90% of respondents in one study reported that they loved something that was not a person. When this group was asked to clarify their report—did they mean love, literally, or were they merely using the word loosely?—over 70% of them confirmed that yes, indeed, they meant love. Literally.
This love is of a slightly different flavor than interpersonal love. For example, interpersonal love usually brings with it an altruistic desire to benefit the beloved person, whereas this sense of altruism is often missing when a consumer loves a brand. But romantic love and brotherly love are both real forms of love, even though they are not identical to each other. And so to it is with brand love. It is different in some ways from interpersonal love, yet it is real love nonetheless.
My current research, with colleagues Rajeev Batra and Rick Bagozzi, shows why understanding love is so important for marketers. One series of studies, published in the Journal of Marketing, tested the ability of brand love to predict some of the things marketers care most about: customer loyalty, positive word-of-mouth, and consumer resistance to negative information about the brand. Perhaps not surprisingly, the more consumers loved a brand, the more likely they were to purchase it again, say nice things about it, and react skeptically when someone else dissed the brand. But more importantly, in a head-to-head comparison between brand love and the standard models of consumer behavior, brand love outperformed the competition as a predictor of these crucial consumer behaviors. In fact, brand love was able to explain 61% of the difference between consumers in their loyalty/word-of-mouth/resistance for a favorite brand. (For readers not familiar with research in this area, 61% is quite a large number.) We are currently conducting a follow-up study, which is finding even more powerful results.
Why does love predict consumer behavior so well? I believe that to answer this question, we need to understand the human ability to take traits which evolved for one purpose, and apply them in new contexts.
Human evolution took place over a very long period of time. Within this time frame, consumer societies are so new that they have had little-to-no influence on our evolutionary makeup. We see this misalignment in the obesity epidemic. Humans evolved in an environment where physical rest and calorie-rich foods were scarce and desirable, so our brains evolved to find these things rewarding. When those hunter-gatherer preferences meet today's consumer society, the results are plain to see. Ironically, then, we human beings are, to a certain extent, misfits within the very consumer societies that we have worked so hard to build.
Fortunately though, the story often has a happier ending. Human abilities, which evolved for one purpose, can be successfully repurposed in the contemporary world. For example, our memories evolved to link a series of events together into a coherent story. This tendency to see the world as a series of stories or narratives helped humans survive by greatly improving their ability to make predictions about the future. This tendency to construct narratives was repurposed fairly early in human history to create entertaining stories, which bore no direct connection to what the person experienced that day. Today, we create and consume these stories on a massive scale. We have taken a basic human tendency, which evolved to help us understand and remember the events we saw around us, and repurposed it to create a cultural outpouring of unprecedented proportions.
So too with brand love. Humans didn't evolve to love brands, products or services — we evolved to love other people. More specifically, love evolved to help people have, and successfully raise, children. Romantic love helps bring a couple together, but that is just the start. Familial love binds the whole family together, and helps motivate both parents to make the many sacrifices needed to raise children. Having and raising children is incredibly important, which is why love is such a powerful force in our lives.
When people love brands, products or services, they are taking a psychological system, which evolved for having and raising children, and repurposing it within the context of a consumer culture. Brand love is a powerful motivating force, because love is a powerful motivating force. Of course in some cases when consumers or marketers speak of loving the product, their words are merely colorful exaggeration. But in other cases, consumers actually do love brands, products and services. And this is a phenomenon that should be taken very seriously indeed.