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Opinion and Insight
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Do We Really Love Brands… Or Are We Just Good Friends (with Benefits)?

LBB Editorial, 7 months, 3 weeks ago

This Valentine’s Day it’s time to accept that consumers just aren’t that into you, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton

Do We Really Love Brands… Or Are We Just Good Friends (with Benefits)?

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, our thoughts at LBB this week turn, naturally, to love. As I’m on the clock I’ve had to put my romantic poetry and heart-pummelling ballads on hold – instead let’s talk about love in a more familiar advertising context. Marketers, consultants and strategists just love, love, love to talk about love. Specifically ‘brand love’, the way people feel about their very favourite brands. It turns out, though, that consumers aren’t quite falling head over heels for brands. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The concept of Brand Love is something that’s been around since the late ‘80s, as researchers turned to the language and behaviours of our personal relationships to describe how we think about, react to and interact with objects. At first glance, it’s the sort of feel good-y stuff that the advertising and marketing industries can’t get enough of. It reassures them that they’re doing something sort of deep and not simply flogging stuff. It reaffirms their positions as psychological masters of the consumer mass. And, just maybe, it might make those truly loved brands take a little more responsibility, reluctant as they are to break the hearts of their fan base. 

On the other hand, might it not make brands take their devoted fans for granted? VW had thousands of loyal fans and that didn’t stop them dicking around with emissions. As The Science of Us notes, when VW broke that trust, it lead to people using words like ‘cheated’ and ‘heartbroken’ – the vocab of the jilted lover – and sales have certainly plummeted.

Brand love like, err, love love is a complicated thing. For one thing it may not be quite such an intense and emotional relationship as brand consultants like to make us think. A study last year from Bergische University in Germany found that while people do tend to use emotive language to describe brands they profess to ‘love’ and talk about these brands in terms of the care they lavish upon them, they also talk about their supposedly ‘loved’ brands in terms of rational benefits in a way that they’d never talk about their human amours. So that gaggle of infatuated romantics that today’s polyamorous brand believes that it has by the heart strings could be no more than a legion of gold diggers.

Where it gets even more interesting is that the same researchers compared physiological responses when people were presented with pictures of their lovers, their most beloved brands and their best friend. The intensity of the response was far stronger for lovers – a result which, if we’re being honest, we all kind of saw coming, no matter what your draft PowerPoint presentation for Cannes 2016 might say. But before you go ripping up your crowd sourced fan pics and changing your brand’s relationship status on Facebook there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. 

For, you see, the study also found no difference between people’s response to the brands and their best friends. Yep. Brands are in the ‘friend zone’. (Let me just say that the friend zone is a nauseating phrase when applied to actual human relationships, but when it comes to brands I have no such compunctions.)

It’s a reality check that’s very welcome. Emotion is important in branding and advertising, and when deployed well an emotional creative can be extraordinarily effective. But let’s not get carried away, here. At the risk of sounding like a well-thumbed dating guide… they’re just not that into you.
And that’s not a bad thing. When we think about fundamental, positive emotions we end up with a fairly bland, pallid looking world cloud. Love. Happiness. Joy. Delight. Emotion should be the start of a strategy, not the end of it. Core emotions are universal, yes, but when they get gritty and complicated and real is where they get interesting.

Yes, I love you darling, but you also gross me out. Is there a reason you need to fart quite so loudly and pungently? 

Yes, friend, let’s definitely catch up, it’s been far too long since I’ve seen you. But if I see another ‘u ok hun’ Facebook status I will have to block you.

Yes, Instagram, you are the prettiest and most used of all my apps but how the fuck has it taken so long to introduce a ‘switch accounts’ functionality? 

I’d also argue that the very concept of ‘Brand Love’ is a bit silly and simplistic – how could anyone who has genuinely been ‘in love’ use it without cringing? Love is intense; it’s multifaceted. I mean, I guess there are brands I admire and respect, some that I even feel affection for. And, materialist that I am, there are loads that I lust after, covet. But love? Really?  

Isn’t abusing language in this way just the sort of thing that gets the industry a bad rep? It’s like buzzword bingo all over again. What’s more I wonder if the ‘Brand Love’ concept has been turning advertisers’ heads… how else do you explain the weird, stalky, obsessive behaviour through targeted ads? Stop acting like a creepy ex.

In any case, if people genuinely, profoundly loved brands the way experts like to claim, we’d all be in big trouble. Love makes us happy, yes, but it hurts, it frustrates, it confuses, it distracts, it awakens jealousy. It’s complicated, brilliant, silly and terrible. Brands – you’re better off as friends with benefits.