Fifteen shades of brand: the psychology of consumer behavior

12 min read
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Artwork by Bruno Silva

Is loyalty the same as a deep love for something? I don’t want to bring the “L” word into things but I guess I really do love a lot of the brands that I use.

At first, it seems rather silly that something so complex as our sense of self can be reflected in something so mundane as shopping behaviors, but today, we know the power brands have. We’re aware of their role in our little rituals, daily lives, in the way we think about ourselves.

But this wasn’t always the case. Back in the 90s, there wasn’t much collaboration between cognitive psychologists and marketers. Brands were thought as “collections of product attributes and benefits that consumers used when making choice decisions,” as Susan Fournier, a Professor and Dean’s Research Fellow at Boston University, puts it.

These days, Susan Fournier is regarded as a pioneer in the field. She got her BSBA in Marketing, eventually rising to senior marketing roles at Polaroid and Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a leading research firm. When she was offered a position as the vice president and associate research director in charge of consumer-brand relations at Young & Rubicam, the world’s largest private advertising agency at the time, she had a sudden realization, as she explains in an interview in The Atlantic. The field in question didn’t exist. There were no frameworks, no “best practices,” no theory or research — nothing. So, naturally, she decided to enroll in a Ph.D. program in order to do the research herself.

Three women and their brands

Born out of that research was a groundbreaking study that ultimately yielded brand relationship theory, a marketing sub-field that explores the consumer-brand connection. In a study with an unthinkably small sample size of three, Fournier demystifies the idea that a brand’s value proposition rests entirely in its functionality, a utilitarian view that boils down to the economics exercise of benefits vs. costs.

The study, which has been cited over 2000 times since publication, is quite amusing. At times, it reads more like a novel, or even a memoir, in its descriptive intensity. It is, in the author’s own words, the life story of three women: Jean, a second-generation Italian housewife and mother who takes great pride in keeping her house orderly; Karen, a time-starved single mother juggling a demanding full-time job with raising her two children; and Vicki, a 23-year-old finishing her master’s degree, embarking on new career paths with that familiar blend of doubt and determination.

Throughout the study, we learn about their likes and dislikes, life experiences, core values, relationships with the people in their lives, and, additionally, the brands around them.

After cross-analyzing the three women’s interviews, Fournier developed a rich series of 15 metaphors, centered around the idea of the romantic pairing, for the different relationships we have with brands. From kinships and committed partnerships, all the way to secret affairs, rebounds, and arranged marriages.

Climbing the great pyramid

A great deal of research on the subject has been done ever since. But despite this — despite the billions brands spend on market research, advertising campaigns, and elaborate PR stunts — there’s still no magic formula. Much like our personal relationships, brand-consumer connections are, well, complicated.

In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed his Hierarchy of Needs. He represented a model of all humans needs using a five-tier pyramid, suggesting that people tend to fulfil the basic, primal needs before moving up to other, more complex ones.

The base needs — think: food, sleep, water, shelter, and sex — correspond to our most primal instincts of survival. And the truth is, if a brand does nothing more than quench someone’s thirst, or satiate someone’s appetite, it’s only doing the bare minimum. Eight out of every ten products launched in the United States are destined to fail, and that’s because a surprisingly big number of brands don’t seem to understand their customers. They drive their entire strategies barely scratching the surface of our human nature, thinking solely about the functional aspects of their products.

But once those basic needs are taken care of, we begin our journey through the psychological, emotional, sociological, and cultural spheres. The need for comfort, for validation, belonging, and self-realization. We fall in love with brands when we see them as an extension of ourselves. Brands whose products or services are not just aesthetically pleasing and fit our lifestyle, but whose message resonates with our place in society, our sense of self, our drives, and our deepest desires.

A classic example is Apple’s legendary 1984 ad. It’s not glorifying any of the Macintosh benefits, and it’s not merely rehearsing specs like RAM size, processor speed, and screen resolution. In fact, it’s barely about the Macintosh at all. At a time when Cold War fear was at its highest and Reagan was waging a war against Communism, this campaign was quite a political statement. It took a stand against propaganda, against any government set on oppressing its people, manipulating and controlling them. It was about ideals, not features. Attitudes, not specs. Apple was for the crazy ones. And they loved it.

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Why do we buy the things we buy?

2002: a terribly beauty has been born. Researchers moved from exploratory research to sticking electrodes in human brains. They called this neuromarketing.

With the hodgepodge of ads and commercial messages we’re exposed to every single day, how do we decide what sticks, and what doesn’t? In his bestselling book Buy-ology, Martin Lindstorm analyzes a three-year-long, multimillion-dollar study of over 2000 people, attempting to identify what influences our buyer’s decisions.

“I wanted to find out why consumers were drawn to a particular brand of clothing, a certain make of car, or a particular type of shaving cream, shampoo, or chocolate bar. The answer lay, I realized, somewhere in the brain,” Lindstorm wrote. So he started measuring his volunteers’ brain electrical activity, and stuck them into a 32-ton fMRI, a four million dollar machine that measures the amount of oxygenated blood throughout the brain, signalling, put simply, when a specific part of the brain is being used.

The technology is typically used to diagnose tumors and other medical conditions, but not this time. This time, it would measure how our brains react to advertising messages, debunking some age-old myths in the process. Does sex really sell? Is subliminal advertising a thing? How powerful are logos? These were some of the questions Lindstorm hoped to shed some light on.

It’s the real thing!

We’re not as logical as we think we are.

This is especially true when it comes to our shopping behavior. In fact, Lindstorm suggests that roughly 90 percent of our consumer buying behavior is unconscious. Whether we’re strolling through supermarket isles and intricate shopping malls or merely surfing the web, when we’re deciding what we should buy, our brain instantly processes an unbelievable amount of past memories, experiences and emotions, squeezing it all into a spontaneous response that dictates why you’re reaching for Coke instead of Pepsi. Neuroscientists call these brain shortcuts somatic markers. Likely, you call it habit, or instinct.

It’s not that people like Coca-cola’s flavor more. In a famous experience called the Pepsi Challenge, in which volunteers were asked to perform blind taste tests of Coke and Pepsi, more than half of the subjects preferred Pepsi. We tend to like sweeter things better. And our brains do, too. When the test was repeated 28 years later with a sMRI, while taking a sip of Pepsi, the subjects registered a rush of activity in in the Ventral Putamen, the region of the brain that’s stimulated when we find tastes appealing.

Interesting? You bet. But what the researchers found next was even more. When you let people know whether they’re sipping Pepsi or Coke, 75% claim to prefer Coke. And this time around, it’s not the Ventral Putamen that’s flaring up, but the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of our brain less associated with sensory information, and more with, you guessed it, higher thinking.

And that’s why, when given the choice, the vast majority of us pick Coke. As Lindstorm puts it:

All the positive associations the subjects had with Coca-Cola—its history, logo, color, design, and fragrance; their own childhood memories of Coke, Coke’s TV and print ads over the years, the sheer, inarguable, inexorable, ineluctable, emotional Coke-ness of the brand—beat back their rational, natural preference for the taste of Pepsi.

That positive association, the rush of dopamine release in our brains, explains why brands that engage us emotionally win every single time.

You might say Coke is our modern-day, high fructose madeleine. With each sip, we trigger a complex set of associations and memories. We owe our sense of brand loyalty, in part, to this Proustian marriage of sentiment and perception.

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What’s Customer Service got to do with it?

When we step into the business to business world, there’s more to loyalty than artsy ads, childhood memories, and catchy jingles. The quality of the product, its price point, reputation, its ability to meet your expectations. But as of late, another thing has been gaining momentum in the whole brand experience.

Long neglected, Customer Service. In fact, we once found a very apt quote from an article on First Round Review, one that we’ve used in multiple occasions ever since. It goes:

If building a company were like planning a wedding, customer service is frequently the second cousin who’s invited when slots open up on the attendee list.

But while answering phones or support tickets, dealing with all sorts of customers screaming bloody murder — excuse the gratuitous hyperbole — may not be anyone’s favorite activity, it has gone from ugly duckling to key brand differentiator really fast. According to RightNow’s Customer Experience Impact Report, a survey of over 2000 U.S. citizens over 18, 89% of consumers have stopped doing business with a company after experiencing poor customer service, which probably explains why companies lose more than $75 billion due to poor customer service. More conservative numbers put it at around 50%, but the conclusion is hardly different.

People care about after sales care. This is especially true in the age of subscriptions, where even toothbrushes get monthly deliveries to your millennial doorsteps. In what seems straight out of a Kusturica’s movie plot, customer service reps are even getting invited to customers’ weddings.

And it really doesn’t take much. Listening to your customer’s problems, treating them, and their time, with respect, rewarding them for their continuous service. In the end, it’s about the people. It’s always been about the people.

“Everybody loves my sauce.”

My mother always used to make the sauce too. All Italians do. When you make sauce, it’s like your trademark. Johnny always says that he can tell people by the sauce that they make. Everybody loves my sauce. My brother Frankie used to sit with a bowl of just my sauce and eat it like soup. He says I make the best sauce he ever had, and he is a gourmet. Goes to a lot of nice restaurants. His ex-wife always cooked really fancy suppers.

As Fournier found out over the course of her 12 hour interview with Jean, she exhibits strong relationships with all the brands that enable her core identity. Born in the same house as her mother, and her mother before that, Jean’s life revolves around the lives of the members of her family and community. Lacking a stable, or traditional, childhood, Jean takes great pride in her home, and finds stability in products that reflect the old way of doing things. Pastene tomatoes, Hunt’s Sauce, Bertolli Olive Oil, Contadina tomato paste, anything that she connects to her Italian heritage.

“You ask me how I know it is good tomatoes? I’ve been making the sauce for 40 years and you ask me how I know?”

It’s not so much that the brands define her, she merely uses them to cultivate her sense of self. And although Karen and Vicky exhibited somewhat different consumer-brand relationships, for each of them, Fournier was able to find plenty of emotional connections with brands that contributed to the exploration and validation of the three women’s central identities.

We’ve come a long way since Susan Fournier first published her study in the Journal of Consumer Research, in March 1998. And while there’s still a long way to go, two decades later, we understand these brand relationships a little bit better.

For better or for worse, our culture is defined by our consumption habits. Perhaps that’s why, when George W. Bush was asked what Americans could do in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, he urged them to simply go shopping. As foolish — to put it gently — as it sounds, he knew these little daily rituals give us a sense of normalcy, of comfort. They may not take the form of a can of Italian Kitchen Ready Tomatoes, and we may not even be aware of it, but they do.

And that’s why research on these brand-consumer relationships is so important. Learning more about these habits doesn’t make us materialists prone to mall fever and shopping sprees. On the contrary. The better our understanding of what drives our consumer behaviors and purchasing quirks, the more control we gain over our choices.

And perhaps, next time you see a bottle Evian water, expertly bottled and shipped from the pristine peaks of the French Alps, you won’t fall prey to the suggestion that a three dollar purchase will speed your ascent to the spiritual plane.

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