We heart brands, but why?

Today’s world is a complex place. And so are our relationships, since we are not only having relationships with other human beings but also with brands.

Brands surround us everywhere these days, and without even noticing, we may begin feeling attached to

Today’s world is a complex place. And so are our relationships, since we are not only having relationships with other human beings but also with brands.

Brands surround us everywhere these days, and without even noticing, we may begin feeling attached to them – we feel like some brands are close to us, similar to us, or we may also form human-like relationships with brands. Why? In marketing research, this is called humanizing brands.

The meaning of humanizing brands

We all know M&M’s candy characters. Giving visual cues and human personality traits to a brand to make the brand resembles a human face or human-like form is one way to humanize brands. It can also mean to representing something non-human as human or giving it human qualities. Many brands do this consciously through narrative ads, for instance. Through the ads consumers can connect the brand with family relationship, such as Knorr’s “Flavor of Home” and Finnish mobile phone operator Elisa’s “Pidetään yhtä”.

Creating a meaningful connection between consumers and the brand gives consumers an opportunity to express themselves by fulfilling their inner states of motivation and by attaining social status while using the brand. That is why you hear people telling they bought “Nike shoes”, not just “shoes”. We connect to brands as they are perceived as an identity signal and they provide us feelings of happiness and pride through creating a feeling of oneness. Some may even take the humanizing a bit further and think of a brand as a committed partner, best friend or servant that acts with intention. We see some brands to be like us, become part of us or be in a relationship with us.

Reasons behind it

Older generations are less likely to develop such strong relationships with brands than younger generations. One reason to that is the existence of the wider variety of brands compared to previous decades. Being exposed to brands and brand messages all the time enables relationship forming the same way as with humans - you will be more likely to form relationship with a person that you have met regularly, and that evokes positive attitude in you than with a distant and unfavorable person.

Another reason for why we create such connections between brands and ourselves has to do with reflecting our actual or ideal selves (see picture below). When we are focusing on present moment, we tend to prefer and connect with brands that enable us to express who we are now. However, when we focus on a distant future or a distant memory, we prefer brands that help us presenting who we would like to become, and we are willing to pay more money for the brands can reflect our ideal selves. This effect also depends on how far into the future we see ourselves using the brands. Remarkably, the willingness to pay more does not apply to a brand that reflects our actual selves. Another interesting finding is that we may form a positive relationship with a well-liked brand even though the brand has betrayed us somehow (asking to pay more, poor quality, mislead information, etc.).

In this technological era many brands are present in our daily lives constantly, so it’s no wonder we may feel attached to them. Facebook, Instagram, and Google Maps are not only applications – they are also brands that play significant roles in our lives. And what about brands that feature with AI, such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa? We communicate with them, they surround us, they listen to us, and they are part of our everyday lives just as our friends and family!

About the author

D.Sc. Teck Ming “Terence” Tan is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Oulu Business School. His research focus includes consumer online and offline behaviors, and humanizing brands was the topic of his doctoral thesis in 2018. He has continued exploring the topic further and has published several articles about the topic. Currently he is studying why consumers form positive relationships with well-liked brands that have betrayed them. Also, he is exploring why and how consumers start and continue using AI brands.

How did you end up studying this topic?

“The topic is based on my personal interest. I am a big fan of English football club Manchester United (MU) since I was seven years old, I guess. I’m so attached to the football club, that I feel very sad when they are performing poorly. I don’t know what drives me to this kind of feeling, MU doesn’t know me but I still am emotionally attached to them and support MU merchandises.

Nike is another example. When I was younger, I didn’t have many Nike shoes, just one pair I think, but the slogan ‘Just do it’ has been following me since then. So, I wanted to understand why I am so attached to those brands, how do I humanize them. I also started to think that if I do have such feelings what about other people. At the time I didn’t know about humanizing brands, I just knew this is the context that I wanted to focus on.”

Why the topic needs to be researched?

“My research provides important information for managers. It helps managers of new and unfavorable brands to see how to make their brand more relevant to their customers. To the best of my knowledge, limited study has identified the impact of temporal distance on how consumers humanize brands in order to present their actual or ideal self nor explored the influence of temporal focus on the way consumers humanize brands. However, in my research, I found out both temporal focus and temporal distance do affect the way consumers humanize brands.

From the consumer perspective, I think the importance stems from the fact that brands play an important role in consumers’ everyday lives. They are being used to enhance and maintain our self-images, such as actual and ideal selves. Because brands play big role in our lives, it’s important to understand why: Why are we willing to pay more money for some brands and not for some other brands? Understanding reasons behind our behavior is especially important since the relationship forming with brands has changed so radically compared to the previous decades. This kind of research helps consumers to become aware of those brands that help them to reflect their ideal selves and to present themselves effectively in front of their friends and in public, as they normally are willing to pay more for those brands unconsciously.”

Further readings:

Tan, Teck Ming, Jari Salo, Jouni Juntunen, and Ashish Kumar (in press). The role of temporal focus and self-congruence on consumer preference and willingness to pay: A new scrutiny in branding strategy. European Journal of Marketing.

Tan, Teck Ming, Jari Salo, Jouni Juntunen, and Ashish Kumar (2018). A comparative study of creation of self-brand connection amongst well-liked, new, and unfavorable brands. Journal of Business Research, 92, 71-80. Full article

Tan, Teck Ming (2018). Humanizing brands: The investigation of brand favorability, brand betrayal, temporal focus, and temporal distance. Doctoral dissertation, University of Oulu Graduate School. Full thesis

Tan, Teck Ming, Jari Salo, Jouni Juntunen, and Ashish Kumar (2017). The effect of temporal distance on self-presentation by brand. NA – Advances in Consumer Research, 45, 481-485. Full article