Psyching Out What Bonds People to Brands

Emotional Attachment Is Tied to the Consumer's Sense of Self

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Valentine's Day has come and gone, and you're still trying to figure out why more people don't love your brand.

You've implemented an improved customer-service program, increased emphasis on social media and launched a campaign that reinforces why your brand is the best in its category. You're doing everything in your power to engage consumers more deeply, with the aim of getting them to fall in love with your brand.

Maybe that 's the problem. A consumer's emotional relationship is not so much about loving your brand. That's fairly unrealistic, as countless psychological studies have demonstrated. We humans are more concerned with protecting our self-esteem and bolstering our self-image. A consumer's real, yet subconscious, emotional connection with a brand is likely to be based on how it helps him fall in love with himself.

No matter what you buy -- diapers, clothing, electronics or a can of tomatoes -- the brands you select affect how you feel about yourself. The car you drive makes a statement about who you think you are. So does the cup of coffee you pick up in the morning and the mobile phone you carry, even though you're not consciously aware of it. And while this seemingly selfish, indulgent behavior might seem the sorry reflection of a hypercapitalistic culture, it's really how we're hard-wired.

A brand helps people fall in love with themselves by reinforcing or affirming self-image. (e.g. I'm the kind of person that uses that kind of __________.)

Just as when you fall in love with another person, it's often not so much a matter of how you feel about them but how they make you feel about yourself. You feel as if you belong. You feel significant. You feel safe. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, the brands consumers buy "complete" them.

How can you develop a brand strategy that "completes" consumers?

It starts with consumer insight. Unfortunately, "insight" is often equated with "observation." (For example: Consumers eat more healthfully at home than in restaurants.) Don't get me wrong. Studying behavior is crucial, but it's not enough to know what people do. You have to uncover why they do that .

A true insight explains the underlying psychological and often subconscious impulses that drive behavior. Unfortunately, this isn't something that a group of strangers in a focus group will reveal. They usually don't even recognize it themselves. And if they don't realize it, how could they tell you?

These deeper psychological insights -- I've come to calling them "unspoken truths" -- can be distilled, or even interpreted, through the study of consumers' behavior, combined with in-depth interviews that let respondents be as comfortable, and therefore as unguarded, as possible. And while no two people are alike, you can begin to see consistent impulses that your brand can connect with -- or emotional gaps that your brand can help fill.

But even if the right insight is uncovered, brand strategy will fail unless calibrated to consistently align with it. The most common mistake is overshooting the insight by having an inflated sense of where a brand fits in a person's life.

The next time you visit a Target store, take notice of how you feel, compared with when you're in a Walmart Stores. Visit a Starbucks and a Dunkin' Donuts. Drive a Chevy Malibu, then a Toyota Camry. Depending on who you are, one brand probably makes you feel more comfortable than the other. However, you might have difficulty explaining what part of your psyche is influencing that comfort or discomfort. The answers you'd give would likely be about rational attributes like environment, price or even features. But if we discussed other aspects of your life -- your career, family and even friends -- I could begin to get a deeper understanding of who you are and why some brands are attractive to you and others aren't. And, I could suggest other brands that would reinforce or reflect your self-image.

So, stop worrying if consumers fall in love with your brand. Your brand will have them at "hello" when their subconscious simply says, "You complete me."

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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