This Is Why You Fall in Love With Brands

How has this study changed your life?

You are what you eat, and, in academic and business circles, I have become known as the "brand relationship person." The upside is that you are known for something; the downside is that it becomes hard to move beyond this space. This reputation affects what I research and write about, the conferences I prepare for and am invited to, the consulting engagements I am offered, and the types of universities I am invited to work at. My research forever influences how I look at people in the consumption-centric world and thus affects interpersonal interactions as well. Everyone is a possible subject in my research, and they know it.

Has your research been misunderstood in any way? Any pet peeves?

Yes! For whatever reason, many refuse to accept that people might actually have relationships with brands. They say, "Relationship is just a metaphor." One particularly aggravating form of this denial is the charge that men do not have brand relationships. There is plenty of empirical evidence to the contrary of course. Think iPhones, cars, and sports teams, for example. These critics are unwilling to legitimize the consumer-brand engagement as being a relationship in its own right. Maybe it's the immense psychosocial weight we attach to the relationship concept in the interpersonal space, a weight that somehow makes it seem profane to use the term in conjunction with consumerism.

If you listen to people's stories and how they talk about their interactions with brands, there are relationships in there. A relationship is simply an interdependent entity that involves some sort of connection or bond -- positive or negative mind you -- that can be summed up by considering the meanings exchanged over time. We can use the same labels for brand relationship constructs that describe interpersonal relationships when appropriate, such as flings, committed partnerships, best friends, or we can come up with labels that are unique to marketing relationships like best-customer relationships. But labeling does not reduce this phenomenon to a simple metaphoric exercise.

What have you come to realize about how people perceive brand relationships or, more generally, consumerism?

It's all too easy in our society to mock a person who forms brand relationships. Many charge that brand connections are dysfunctional in that they promote materialism, self-indulgence, and selfishness; and that consumers who engage in them are illogical, irrational, misguided and misinformed. This critique denies the very culture in which we live. Ours is a culture that is very much defined by consumption. In the U.S., the number one export is branded merchandise, both in the form of products and celebrities. We can critique this and lament the consequences, or we can embrace it and understand it for what it is. Are Obama's supporters bad for society? Does love of the iPhone degenerate culture? In a foreign environment, is it dysfunctional to seek the refuge of a familiar brand?

Brands are a part of life in the 21st century. Consumers and academics must understand what this means and, at the same time, not take things too far. For example, despite research that demonstrates over and again that relationships are merely facilitators, some continue to reify brands and brand relationships. But a strong relationship develops by supporting people in living their lives, not by driving brand involvement. As I like to say, "It's about the people, stupid."

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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