Research: A Love Story

It's Valentine's Day, and I can't help but reminisce about the first time I fell in love. It was in 1982, and I was 10 years old. She was sophisticated, full of surprises, and very popular. And she was no cheap date. So for a year I mowed lawns and sold lemonade until I had enough money to get her. Eventually I did, and I called her Abigail. Our romance lasted for years.

This was no girl. It was a home video-game console called the Atari 2600.

As researchers, we're often assessing consumers' affinity for brands. But what I've found in my 15 years on the job is that beloved brands — like my Atari 2600 — are the strongest ones of all. After all, love is why Apple, Harley Davidson, Starbucks and more enjoy such strong positions in the market place.

But what is brand love? And how can we create it for our own brands?

Brand Love Is Real

Love for brands is as real as love for humans. In 2011 branding consultant Martin Lindstrom scanned consumers' brains with an fMRI machine while showing them audio and video of their ringing iPhone. He found that the insular cortex lit up brilliantly. That's the part of the brain associated with feelings of love.Romancing the Brand by Tim Halloran

That helps explain why we attribute human characteristics to brands, as Tim Halloran points out in his book "Romancing the Brand." Researchers from Stanford University found that consumers assign the same personalities to brands as they do to people. And Susan Fournier, of the University of Florida, found that consumers develop the same relationships with brands as they do with people. What's more, "she concluded that the strongest brand-consumer relationships exhibited qualities comparable to those of happily married couples."

What's most fascinating is that when we fall in love with a brand, like I did with Abigail, we unlock millions of years of evolutionary behavior. Scientists theorize that just as we're programmed to fear spiders and sharks, we're also programmed to fall in love, pair up with a single partner — and protect each other to ensure mutual survival.Tapping this evolutionary impulse to love is key to building strong brands, too.

Consider the following four examples:

Brand Love is Instinctual

Love is a brand defense mechanism

The biggest threat to a human relationship is more attractive alternatives — in other words, the "other woman" or "the other man" who has got something you don't. Research has shown that when you love someone, you ignore those alternatives. When you're in love with a brand, you often do the same thing — buy it without considering any other brands. Brand love is a defense mechanism, and that's why brand loyalty should be one of the key metrics of any brand tracker.

Love fosters brand compromise

When two people love each other they are more apt to compromise over a disagreement. This is a signal to the other partner that you're willing to sacrifice for his or her well being. That's how brands like Tylenol and Jack in the Box — both of whom accidentally killed customers with their products — made a comeback. Their devotees forgave them. When doing research for a distressed brand, consider its potential to make a comeback by assessing the amount of brand love its consumers have for it.

Love promotes brand planning

Scientists have observed that people in love are more likely to talk about the future than people not in love. That's because, evolutionarily, planning with a loved one is a signal that this person is worthy of our future. This applies to brands, too. For instance, people invest in the Apple suite of products in anticipation of buying future Apple devices that best fit their platform. In this way, it's important for the researcher to know that clients building towards a long-range future shouldn't move forward until their customers have fallen in love with them.

Love Programs You to Promote Brands

People in love are more likely to smile at each other, move towards each other, nod their heads. And when you see those signals, you know you're with an ally. The same is true for brands: when a Harley Davidson fan wears a tattoo, he's signaling to others that they belong together. A brand that has a following can build love by creating brand signals that embrace the customer.

Creating Brand Love

So how does a brand create a loving bond with its customers? Here are at least three ways:

Be First

Don't allow a competitor to swoop in and take your prospective customers. If they do, and they build a loving bond, you may never get a chance to convert them. Instead, identify untapped markets and grab them before anyone else — and foster the kind of bond that can't be broken.

Be a Listener

A good spouse is a good listener, and the same is true of brands. Those that check in with their customer keep up with needs, wants and desires. That's where market research comes. Brand tracking, attitude and usage studies, segmentations, and basic qualitative check-ins can make the difference between a brand that's liked and one that's beloved.

Create Unforgettable Moments

Just last month, independent agency MBLM released its 2017 Brand Intimacy Report, which ranks consumers' emotional connection to brands. Topping the list is Disney — a 93-year-old company. How does it do it after all these years? It does it by creating magical moments that last a lifetime. In other words, the experience is the product. That's what we look for when we do shop-a-long studies: opportunities for clients to turn transactions into unforgettable experiences.

In Conclusion

Science proves that loving a brand is as real as loving a person. Love is something we've evolved to do, and harnessing this instinct is key to building brands that last. Creating loving bonds is no mystery; we listed three ways here. It isn't easy. But then again, love never is.