This Is Why You Fall in Love With Brands

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Advertising veteran and marketing expert Susan Fournier reflects on her seminal 1998 study on brand relationship theory and asserts that it's not just a metaphor.

A man looks at his iPad outside an Apple store in downtown Shanghai. Aly Song/REUTERS

In science, size is everything. Studies that boast large samples are more likely to get accepted for publication, while research papers with few participants are usually tossed out, purportedly because their findings can't be projected onto the population with "confidence."

Susan Fournier's groundbreaking study on brand relationships (PDF) is the clear exception. With a super-small sample size of three, her research, which also established a framework for the evaluation of consumer-brand connections, didn't just survive the peer review process. Since its publication in the Journal of Consumer Research in 1998, it has also accumulated at least 2,310 citations, the surest sign of academic validation.

But Fournier didn't just have to contend with her University of Florida advisers, who opposed her decision to eschew surveys and group discussions for in-depth one-on-one case interviews. For the better part of the 90s, cognitive psychologists were loath to collaborate with marketers since doing so was considered the academic equivalent of selling out. And things weren't any better on the marketing side. Though relationships weren't an alien concept to the field, they were used as mere metaphors for utilitarian exchanges. The concept of brand loyalty, for instance, typically just referred to repeat business.

In the Q&A below, Fournier looks back on the rocky journey behind her seminal study, discusses how far the literature on consumer behavior has come, and shares why she despises society's eagerness to equate materialism with consumerism.

How did the research come about?

Over 20 years ago, I was promoted to vice president of consumer-brand relationship ideas at Young & Rubicam, an acclaimed advertising agency in New York. I was to translate the revolutionary business-to-business relationship marketing paradigm into the consumer marketing world, but I quit two weeks later on the heels of a stark realization: the frameworks and concepts I would need to do my job had yet to be created. So off I went to the University of Florida PhD program to develop brand relationship theory in consumer research myself.

The case was not an easy sell. I was dealing with a faculty of dyed-in-the-wool experimental cognitive psychologists who thought of brands as economic sources of information. They would say, "People have relationships with inanimate brands, do they? Do tell! Surely you must be joking?"

The methods I brought to bear to illuminate my research phenomenon troubled them too. My thesis would ultimately rest on phenomenological interviews with three -- yes, three -- women. The addition of classic scale development work and some modeling surely helped, but not for long since the box of surveys I had collected on peoples' brand relationships was inadvertently recycled by a zealous cleaning lady at UF one night. Remember, this is pre-electronic age, so I got firsthand experience in dumpster diving. I couldn't find the surveys though, so the resulting thesis is one chapter shorter than anticipated.

What were you hoping to achieve?

Basically, my goals with this research were two-fold. I wanted to investigate whether and in what ways people have relationships with their brands and to inform marketing practice with a relationships perspective that was lacking at that time. I also wanted to support methodological advances in consumer research by developing theory based on in-depth conversations with everyday folks.

How were brands viewed back then?

Before the publication of this research, academic thinking on brands and consumers' brand behaviors was driven by close adherence to economic and cognitive principles. Brands were simply collections of product attributes and benefits that consumers used when making choice decisions, and familiar brands helped people gain an idea of product quality, reduce risks, and save time. This was a very left-brained, company-centric, highly-rational branding world based on an economics of benefits versus costs. In fact, throughout the late 1980s, several business publications ran cover stories like "The Death of the Brand" after the rise of Walmart, Costco, and relentless couponing.

While useful and certainly not wrong, this slavish attention to cognitive psychology and economics left something important out of the branding equation: the psycho-social-cultural-emotional story of consumers and their brands. As early as the 1950s, Harvard Business Review ran articles, including "The Product and the Brand" (PDF) and "Symbols for Sale" (PDF), that called attention to the unacknowledged fact that brands were meaning-laden symbols that communicated important things about people and their worlds. This thinking finally took hold during the 1980s when consumer behavior sociologists and anthropologists urged researchers to look beyond cognition to understand deeper the socio-cultural stories behind the products that people buy and use.

Another revolution in marketing helped as well: the relationship paradigm shift. In the late 1980s, the American Marketing Association changed its definitions of marketing to focus on relationships -- mutually reciprocating, long-term engagements that form between customers and firms -- and not on simple gives and gets. Technologies that allowed customized communications fueled this as well by allowing one-to-one interactions over time. Relationship-rich concepts, such as loyalty, satisfaction, interdependency, commitment, and trust, took center stage.

The problem, however, was that this relationship thinking was applied only in the context of business-to-business relationships, such as those between suppliers and buyers. Relationships, it was implicitly assumed, took place only between enlivened human partners. No one had thought to consider if relationships could manifest with an inanimate brand. Enter my thesis research. My relationships perspective helped researchers and marketers organize, make sense of, and explore the socio-emotional and symbolic dimension of consumer brands.

How far has our knowledge of brand relationships progressed since?

As I see it, the original "Consumers and their Brands" paper provided several take-aways that helped not only to shift marketing thought and perspectives, but also to spawn many research sub-areas. Brands became meaning-laden symbols that helped people live their lives. We learned that the essence of a given brand was not an inherent property of that brand as defined by marketers and reinforced in a 30-second ad. People's life projects, identity tasks, life themes, current concerns, cohorts, etc. provide the lenses through which brands come to have meaning. This research helped pave the way for the paradigm of co-creation enabled by Web 2.0 technology and embraced in brand marketing today.

This research also made clear that brand relationships are very complex phenomena, much like human relationships. Marketers tended to think only of strong versus weak connections, wherein consumers were passionately committed for the long-term. The reality is one of a complex relationship space that exists alongside so-called "brand marriages" to include best friendships, childhood friendships, and flings. Most importantly, there exist negatively-toned relationships that received little if any research attention: dependencies, abused spouses, master-slaves, and adversaries, for example.

It has been 14 years, and we have learned a great deal. We have developed a deeper understanding of relationship trust, satisfaction, love, and commitment; models of various types of brand love; a fuller understanding of how brand relationships help express one's identity; the causes and consequences of brand relationships that have "gone bad"; and so much more. We've provided insights on corporate social responsibility and the process of anthropomorphism that brings brands alive.

Still, not surprisingly, many conundrums remain. We have progressed very little in our understanding of the experience of different types of brand relationships. As I said, attention to more negative relationships is needed as the field maintains a bias toward understanding the positive relationship ideal. Valid metrics for measuring and identifying brand relationships remain lacking. And cross-disciplinary research with academicians from psychology and other disciplines focused on interpersonal relationships is rare.

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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