Bianca: There's a difference between like and love. Because, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.
Chastity: But I love my Skechers.
Bianca: That's because you don't have a Prada backpack. (from 10 Things I Hate About You)
Love is arguably the most popular feeling, which might explain why there are millions of songs, books, and movies written about it. It might even be the only set of feelings with a whole holiday dedicated to it. But love isn’t just for Ariana Grande songs and pink stuffed teddy bears; the principle of romantic love also applies to our relationships with brands. Love for brands is what drives us to pay a premium for products made by the likes of Nike, Louis Vuitton, and so many more.
Learning about the different stages of love – from new, butterfly-inducing attraction, to long-term affection, and even to a sobering break-up – can help us understand consumer behavior and better inform brand strategy.
The behavioral science of falling in love with a brand
Whether you’ve tumbled head-over-heels in love with a romantic partner, a TV show, or your new favorite pair of jeans, your brain is constantly shifting its focus and attention toward the object of your affection. And while love is generally characterized by positive emotions, new love is especially associated with high-arousal emotions, and these have big impacts on behavior.
Emotional arousal is the state of being highly activated – either positively or negatively - and can influence our behaviors and decision-making. High arousal emotions are likely to drive us to act and can lead to more impulsive decisions creating the perfect opportunity for adoption and trial of a new product. For example, even though Disney is a well-established, well-loved brand, the new Disney+ streaming service got consumers even more excited, created social media buzz, and led to an incredible 10 million digital subscribers on the day it released.
With new love, thinking about or interacting with the object of your affection also influences your behavior through a biological reward system. Essentially, each experience triggers the release of dopamine – a brain chemical that makes us feel “want” and “desire”. Our brains LOVE dopamine, and will do most anything to get more of it. By surrounding ourselves with loveable brands, we’re ensuring that our brains get their fix, and we feel happier in all aspects of our lives.
To underscore the point, think of when a disruptor brand came by and totally changed your relationship with a product you liked, but never quite loved. Just like someone who entices you to leave an otherwise happy relationship, these disruptors present an alternative you never knew you needed. Whether it’s a cool looking toothbrush or high-tech luggage, using your new product generates excitement. Each time you feel your squeaky-clean teeth or use the charger built into your suitcase, you feel good about your purchase, yourself, and your new favorite brand.
Sustaining love for a brand
After the honeymoon period ends, love shifts from being a high arousal, all-encompassing emotion to a more sustained, lower arousal feeling through relationship bonds. Lower-arousal emotions, like security and happiness, encourage people to continue their existing behavior and reinforce close bonds that can last a lifetime. Prior to Disney+, for example, many adults would probably categorize their love for Disney as “sustained” love: satisfying, long-lasting, but not thrilling.
One way that long-term relationships strengthen these bonds – either with people or with brands – is through close identification with the relationship partner. Identification, or how much you think you align with another person or a brand, is associated with all kinds of great things that make good relationships last. People with high identification for brands are more likely to resist negative information about the brand, are willing to hold out on a purchase if they can’t find “their” brand, and are likely to follow the brand into new categories.
To build identification, brands need to create a shared set of values or principles that connect with consumers. Each time you use that high-tech suitcase, for example, you’re reinforcing the shared value of being a smart, modern traveler, and further sustaining the love you feel for the brand.
Breaking up with a brand
Not all relationships last forever. Falling out of love happens for brands just as it does for people. Trends and fads seem to go straight from new love to lost love, failing to sustain that early excitement. It’s like a child obsessed with a new toy for days or weeks after her birthday before it gets buried in a closet, never to be seen again.
But established brands are vulnerable to break-ups as well. When anyone breaks our trust, whether it’s a person or a brand, it’s very hard to win it back, no matter how long or deep the relationship. Much like high-arousal positive emotions, high-arousal negative emotions have strong ties to memory, so the violation won’t soon be forgotten. Whether or not the relationship can be repaired depends on many factors, such as the severity of the transgression. Nevertheless, when brand love starts to fizzle out and creeps ever-closer to lost love, the onus is on the brand to try and reignite the bond.
Like a grand romantic gesture, brands can sometimes save face by admitting they were wrong, making it up to consumers, and learning from their mistakes. After Volkswagen’s infamous “Dieselgate,” the brand bought back or refitted many of the impacted cars at great expense. But the move may have saved brand trust, as VW sales were up the year following buyback.
Another way to win back the hearts of consumers is to start the whole process over with a new product or offering, but this can be a tricky process. When customers start to fall out of love, they have to overcome a range of negative emotions, and they often shift those negative emotions onto their former partner – in this case the brand. All the cool bells and whistles that initially sold them on the product may now feel annoying, overcomplicated, or cheap. If brands can reach consumers with a reinvented image or the promise of a new product before the negative emotions pass the point of no return, they have a chance to overcome their stigmas and reconnect severed bonds.
All you need is love (and consumer psychology insights)
It’s important for any business to think about the human aspect of brand relationships. Our psychology and the way we interact with the world has been shaped by our existence as social and emotional beings. When considering how to develop love for your brand, the fundamentals should align with how you’d build, nurture, or recover any other kind of relationship.
Material's Pragmatic Brain Science Institute® LOVES to explore the emotional bonds between humans and brands. Learn more about how we can help you keep the flame going between you and your customers by shooting us a message.