Humanizing a Brand: Consumer Relationships Through an Anthropomorphic Lens

By Kristen Calabro
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2014, Vol. 5 No. 2 | pg. 1/3 |

Abstract

Brand loyalty develops as an intermixing of self-image and brand image, and anthropomorphized brands succeed when their ideal traits are utilized as brand personality components. To test the relationship between anthropomorphism and ideal traits, the researcher surveyed 211 Elon students and compared their preference for four brands from two industries. One brand from each industry utilized anthropomorphism techniques in the form of a spokescharacter, while the other brand did not. The results of the survey found that the use of a spokescharacter affected brand preference: It created significant brand preference when compared to a similar brand without a spokescharacter.

Introduction

When Apple first came on the scene, it was the odd one out. Microsoft and IBM were the corporate giants with a firm and seemingly unshakable grip on the personal computer market. Apple computers were peculiar looking, expensive, and had a completely different type of user interface. So, how did Apple go from being a nobody in the shadows of successful traditional PC companies, to becoming an icon of the millennial generation and an integral part of many people’s identity? The answer lies in branding.

Apple knew it had a great product. The marketing department just had to figure out how to communicate that to consumers. In one of its longest running advertising campaigns, Apple personified itself in the form of “Mac,” a character played by Justin Long, and it personified the competition through “PC,” played by John Hodgman. The two could not have been more different. Mac was the charming, kind of quirky hipster who was smart and full of clever remarks. PC was frumpy, awkward, and not too bright (Jaffe, 2014). By personifying its brand through a likeable spokescharacter, Apple provided its customers with someone to connect to, identify with, or aspire to be. Not only did consumers know who Mac was, perhaps most importantly, they also wanted to be that person.

The purpose of this study is to provide insight into the nature of successful brand strategies that utilize spokescharacters as a personification technique through an extensive literature review and survey analysis. It will explore the development of brand loyalty as an intermingling of self-image and brand-image, and the level of success brands enjoy when employing personified traits popularly viewed as desirable.

Background

While Apple is a marketing innovator in the technology sector, many companies have favored personification techniques for many years, granted, with varying degrees of success. Geico has its gecko, Progressive has Flo, and Pillsbury has the doughboy. However, while brand personification strategies may offer more success in relation to non-personification, they do not guarantee market leadership or strong brand loyalty. Starbucks and Nike, for instance, have incredibly loyal consumers and have both achieved the rank of a Fortune 500 company. Instead of creating brand characters, they personified their brands through strong brand personalities.

In today’s marketplace, more products, more services, and more advertising are bombarding consumers than ever before. The abundance of options is great for consumers given that they can have their pick of the lot, but for companies, the competition can be overwhelming. Loyal customers are important to understand, because they tend to be behind the majority of brands’ sales (Sutikno, 2011). The Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, states that 80 percent of a company’s profit comes from 20 percent of its customers. This 20 percent is often the most loyal segment of consumers as well (Kaufman, 2012). In order for business owners and marketing executives to create or grow a loyal following, they have to understand how to form brand loyalty and what type of marketing techniques garner the strongest impact.

Literature Review

Researchers have been studying the relationships that brands have with their customers for many years. In an attempt to understand the secret to successful marketing and brand building, almost every aspect of the brand-consumer dichotomy has been picked apart and analyzed. Several major themes have arisen from all of this research, the most prevalent theme being the nature of brand loyalty. Researchers have also found that the price consumers are willing to pay for a product or service is a strong indicator of their relationship with a brand.

The literature also paints a picture of the development of consumer-brand relationships. Looking at how these relationships grow and the factors that affect them will help marketers and business owners to better understand how their product or service is connecting to consumers.

What are Brands?

Brands are the connection between the consumer and the product, and arguably “the most valuable intangible asset for a company” (Sutikno, 2011). Consumers use brands to organize and store the information they gather regarding a product or service. Brand experience, the culmination of the consumer’s interactions and exposure to a brand, creates this cognitive structure (Jones & Runyan, 2013). Four dimensions of the brand experience, set forth by branding scholars Brakus, Schmitt and Zarantonello, assert that encounters with the brand are qualified as sensory, emotional, intellectual, or behavioral (as cited in Jones & Runyan, 2013).

The brand experience has a strong impact on cognitive attitudes for brands. If the consumer is having a consistently positive brand experience, he or she will most likely be satisfied with the brand and its associated products as an extension. The feelings of favorability and satisfaction that stem from the brand experience are the catalyst to brand identification (Jones & Runyan, 2013).

Brand Identification

Every person has his or her own personally perceived identity. Known as the self-concept in psychology, it is based on a personal evaluation of unique attributes and traits (Sigelman and Rider, 2009). Brand identification is “a social construction that involves the integration of perceived brand identity (or brand image) into self-identity” (Lin & Sung, 2014). This occurs when a consumer has a consistently positive experience with a brand and finds a similarity in their personal image and the brand’s image (Sutikno, 2011). Once brand identification takes place, the brand becomes a representation of the consumer’s self-concept. This leads to strong attachment to the symbolic brand, as well as its associated products. Attachment is important because it reflects the consumer and brand’s shared attitudes and beliefs (Jones & Runyan, 2013).

We also have a social identity, which is how we identify as members of a group. Social identity provides a sense of belonging to the social world (McLeod, 2008). People are drawn to others they perceive to be like them, and brands have evolved into a way of recognizing those similarities. Individuals see brands they have identified with as external symbols of their self-concept, so when an individual finds another consumer with the same brand preference, they take it as a sign of deeper similarities. Consumers use the symbols to identify with others who share similar attitudes and beliefs.

Based on the social identity theory, we seek those who are similar to us to establish an “in-group.” Conversely, people can use external symbols that mark dissimilarities to establish an “out-group.” Once a person identifies as a part of an in-group, he or she tends to “discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image” (McLeod, 2008). The social nature of today’s society has led to greater fluidity of self-identity, making brands attractive as sources of identity stability (Jones & Runyan, 2013). Another method of enhancing self-image is to act as a brand ambassador by adopting aspects of the brand’s identity in behavior and personality, which is the antecedent of brand loyalty (Sutikno, 2011).

Brand Loyalty

Although many scholars have differing definitions of brand loyalty, the strongest defining element is always behavior. Brand loyalty is most commonly defined as an attitudinal and behavioral construct determined by prolonged repurchase actions and favorable feelings for the brand. Consumers gain favorable feelings during the positive brand experience and consistent satisfaction that caused brand identification (Sutikno, 2011). Loyalty is established when consumers makes a commitment to the brand (Kim, Morris, & Swait, 2008), in that they intend to continue purchasing the brand in the future, speak positively about the brand to others, and disregard negative brand information (Sutikno, 2011).

Jones and Runyan (2013) uses a construct Jacoby and Chestnut (1978) conceived for brand loyalty. The concept includes six elements: “First, the consumers’ actions must be non-random or biased toward an outcome. Second, there must be a behavioral response which can be measured in purchases. Third, those behavioral responses must be exhibited over time. Fourth, the solution set must relate to some consistency when engaged for a similarly defined purchase target. Fifth, the behavioral response from the decision must relate to one or more brand(s), relative to an acceptable solution set, and sixth the exhibited behavior must result from the engagement of an evaluative decision-making process.” As in brand identification, brand loyalty is rooted in the consumer’s self-concept. Those who construe themselves as independent (vs. interdependent) are less influenced by situational factors and are likely to remain strong in their stance with a brand. Consumers who construe themselves in relation to other tend to have weaker attitudes and are more susceptible to situational and social influences (Sung, Choi, & Tinkham, 2012).

“Brand Love”

Batra, Ahuvia, and Bagozzi (2012) took a slightly different approach to understanding brand loyalty. In their study “Brand Love,” the researchers make the argument that consumers can experience a type of love for brands. This brand love exists based on the presence of ten major components. First, the brand has to be of superior quality (or qualities). Second, the brand must hold values and beliefs consumers can identify with. The researchers found that “brands were more likely to be loved when they also connected to something the respondent believed was deeper, such as self-actualization, close interpersonal relationships, existential meaning, or religious or cultural identities.” Third, loved brands hold intrinsic rewards (provides feeling of personal satisfaction and/or achievement) because they create desirable psychological states that blend with the brand experience. The difference between brands that consumers use vs. brands that consumers use and love is the dual presence of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards (tangible).

Consumers do not claim to love a brand if it provides extrinsic rewards, but lacks intrinsic ones. Fourth, brand personalities must express “existing identities and enact desired identities” for consumers to identify with them as something they love. Fifth, consumers need to have positive feelings toward the brand. The sixth component, passion, sometimes referred to as the first dimension, indicates a sense of natural fit between the consumer and the brand. Seventh is the presence of an emotional bond between consumer and brand. Consumers can identify this type of bond if they anticipate being upset when the brand is lost or made unavailable. Eighth is willingness to invest. If the consumer loves the brand, he or she is likely to put more time, money, and energy into it. The ninth component is “frequent thought and use.” Consumers must interact with the brand frequently to form a relationship as strong as brand love. The final component is prolonged length of use. Consumers must engage with a brand over a length of time so that not only brand identification takes place, but also the brand becomes a part of the consumer’s personal narrative.

Outcomes of Brand Loyalty

As previously stated, brand loyalty results in willingness to pay premium prices, engagement in positive word of mouth promotion (Sutikno, 2011), and resistance to negative brand-related information (Folse, Burton, & Netemeyer, 2013). According to Sutikno (2011), willingness to pay premium is the “consumer’s intention to pay more for specific brand of product and service than competitor brands of products and services unless in the same quality.” Willingness to pay premium is one of the reasons loyal customers are a highly profitable group.

Consumers are constantly seeking ways to better their lives (e.g. make them easier), and maintaining a long-term relationship with a brand they have identified as having all of the qualities they are seeking motivates consumers to pay a premium (Sutikno, 2011).

Anthropomorphism

The reason people are able to adopt brands as part of their self-concept is due to the natural tendency to humanize non-human objects. Anthropomorphism is the term for this tendency to give human traits to non-human objects, and it is responsible for the personification of brands. Human traits are those naturally found in living beings (e.g. beliefs, desires, values, etc.) (Lin & Sung, 2014). Since consumers identify more strongly with brands that share similar values, anthropomorphism has been an obvious tactic for marketers.

The most apparent tactic of anthropomorphism is the spokescharacter, or advertising icon. Spokescharacters are the embodiment of the human traits tied to a brand through a visual image (cartoon or human). Originally developed for promotional purposes, marketers quickly realized their effectiveness in communicating brand personality and connecting with consumers. Some of the most famous spokescharacters include the Geico Gecko, Mr. Clean, and the Michelin Man. To be a successful spokescharacter, he or she has to have both likeable traits and traits associated with expertise in the brand-relevant industry or category.

Research has also found that spokescharacters may provide brand-equity protection. Consumers can more easily identify with spokescharacters than an abstract idea of a brand, thus accelerating brand identification and resistance to negative information. In previous studies, researchers found that the presence of characters can lead to increased brand and advertisement recall. Regarding product promotion, research ascribes improved brand claim recognition and positive brand attitude to the presence of a spokescharacter, as well. For services, spokescharacters are especially effective in promoting pleasure-related brands (Folse, Burton, & Netemeyer, 2012).

Brand Communication

With all of the brands and companies today, humanizing a brand is not always enough. Marketers need to be able to effectively communicate the brand personality to the consumers, or they will never make that connection to brand identification. María Ángeles Navarro-Bailón (2012) conducted a communication study to shed light on the “synergistic effects derived from an integrated marketing communication (IMC) strategy following strategic consistency,” meaning IMC campaigns based around one message spoken in one voice to achieve a single goal. For IMC to be effective, consistency is key. It enables the brand image to maintain cohesiveness, providing the stability that consumers crave in long-term brand relationships (brand love).

It is a commonly held belief that repetition facilitates memorization and learning. In advertising, researchers have examined the effects of repeated exposure to an advertisement and found that at first, the repetition did as expected and had a positive impact on learning. Once the consumer was over-exposed to the same advertisement though, he or she became bored with it and had a negative reaction. Thus, to effectively communicate a single message, researchers concluded the communication of a message should occur through a variety of executions that provided consumers with novel and diverse stimuli (Navarro-Bailón, 2012).

The existing literature provides a strong and in-depth understanding of how consumers form a relationship with brands. According to the existing research, repeated exposures to a brand allow the consumerto have a brand experience. During the brand experience, consumers anthropomorphize the brand and identify similar traits and values they hold in their own self-concept. Once brand identification has occurred, the brand-image and self-image intermingle, and as the consumer continues to engage with the brand and purchase its associated goods or services, brand loyalty develops.

Brands start this process through integrated marketing communication (e.g. advertising) to reach the consumer. Effective IMC shares the brand’s message in a unique voice through a variety of executions. Thus, we understand how brands are supposed to communicate and how, in turn, the relationship to the consumer is formed. Little research, however, exists on what the brand should be communicating and on what type of brand personalities companies should strive for in order to build a strong following of brand loyalists. It is important to understand how these traits are determined and how to best fuse them to the brand. This paper will argue that ideal brand traits target consumers who popularly associate with their perception of an ideal self, and that anthropomorphism in the form of spokescharacters strengthens the consumer’s awareness of the brand’s traits.

Thesis Statements

When a business develops its brand, it usually attaches human characteristics. The one-for-one shoe brand TOMS, for instance, committed itself to the human experience of helping others. By purchasing a pair of TOMS shoes, the consumer is not only fulfilling a personal want, but they are also aware that somewhere in the world a person in need will benefit from their purchase as well. Thus, buying TOMS is not an extension or by-product of our consumerism culture, it is a good deed. It helped buyers overcome the guilt of buying another pair of shoes in a recession-ridden economy and gave action a greater purpose by allowing consumers to incorporate philanthropy into their self-concepts.

Through identifying with self-concepts, brands open up a channel for consumers to create a personal connection. However, when forming a brand identity, does it matter which trait, or traits, consumers can relate and connect to? Are some traits more desirable than others are? How overt should a brand be in communicating its personality? By humanizing itself with a spokescharacter, does the brand create a stronger bond? Based on the findings in the literature review, using a combination of a spokescharacter and personality traits that are associated with an ideal self-concept will result in stronger brand loyalty than brands that use non-ideal traits and other identification techniques.

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