You have heard the story before—a major company has been caught with egg on its face.
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It uses sweatshop labor. It is dumping heavy metals into rivers. Maybe its products are being recalled. But despite the evidence, whether the product is blue jeans or personal tech or coffee, eventually you will start to hear customers stand up for the firm. On social media and blogs, they will claim that the company did not know about the problems, or, though someone along the way may have made a mistake, the product is fundamentally sound. Chill out, they say. Back off, they type. You do not know the whole story.
It makes sense when people rush to the defense of close family members or even particular places or objects with special significance—think of the house you grew up in, or the bed you have had since childhood. But why do people rush to the defense of brands?
It could be that we think of them as part of ourselves. Psychologists and sociologists have long studied our human tendency to incorporate other people and objects into our concept of self. Quite a few experiments have shown that people react to threats to family, for instance, much as if they themselves were being threatened. But brands are not childhood homes or little sisters: they are abstract, commercial concepts. Might we nonetheless identify with them enough to defend them?
The Relationship Between Brand and Self
To probe the nature of this attachment between brand and consumer, Angela Y. Lee, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, Monika Lisjak, a doctoral candidate at the Kellogg School, and Wendi L. Gardner, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University, set up a series of four experiments in which participants weighed in on a pair of brands that have seen their share of controversy: Facebook and Starbucks.
The first experiment explored whether research participants who were primed to respond to threats to the self would defend a beloved brand just as they would defend themselves. First, participants took standard tests designed to indirectly reveal their level of self-esteem—one test, for instance, asked participants to rate how much they liked their name. This was key, because people with low self-esteem tend to respond more strongly to threats to the self. If participants who have low self-esteem were more likely to defend a brand than participants with higher self-esteem, this would imply that the participants have incorporated the brand into their sense of self.
After participants were asked to rate their attitude towards Starbucks on a scale from “dislike very much” to “like very much,” they performed a task designed to induce self-reflection: they had to come up with three personality traits they possessed (or, in a control condition, produce three defining characteristics of a chair). Since self-awareness tends to make people react more strongly to threats to the self, this was another setup to see whether Starbucks might be defended in the same way as one’s own self-image.
Participants then read an editorial critical of Starbucks, including sentences like “Starbucks has capitalized on the ills of our modern society, appealing to our egos more than to our taste buds.” They were asked to indicate how their opinion of Starbucks had changed on a scale from “like a lot less” to “like a lot more.”
This question is relevant because, when an aspect of someone’s self is threatened, he tends to stick by it as strongly as ever. Your friend does not like that you crack your knuckles? You will probably fire back that it has never hurt anyone and respond by cracking your knuckles again.
“If you believe that a brand is part of you, and you read something negative about it, how are you going to react?” Lee asks.
“If you believe that a brand is part of you, and you read something negative about it, how are you going to react?” Lee asks. “Are you going to stop using it? Or do you use it even more?” Sure enough, after crunching the numbers, Lee and her colleagues found that self-conscious, low-self-esteem subjects who said they liked Starbucks initially actually rated the coffee company more favorably after they had read the critical editorial.
Exploring the Effect
Lee and her colleagues put different sets of participants through two additional studies to determine whether the effect would remain when extended to different methodologies for assessing self-esteem and inducing self-awareness, as well as to another brand, Facebook. As it turned out, the effects did persist: the people who were set up to feel defensive and who identified highly with the brand either were not at all affected by the negative editorial, or they actually upped their opinions of the brand after reading the critique.
Finally, Lee and her colleagues wanted to see whether compensating for an attack on the self would affect the extent to which brands were defended. When some aspect of people’s sense of self is threatened, they tend to defend that aspect of themselves less strongly if they are given a chance to affirm themselves elsewhere.
“If Starbucks is part of you, and you read something negative about Starbucks, you feel attacked,” Lee explains. “But I now give you another way to feel good about yourself. Then, once that need is being satisfied, you may not feel that you need to defend Starbucks anymore.”
So in the final study, before participants rated whether their opinions of Starbucks had changed, they were given the chance to, in essence, bolster themselves by being part of an in-crowd. The subjects, who were all Northwestern students, were asked to rate students and faculty at Northwestern, as well as students and professors at another university, on measures like intelligence and likelihood of success.
This time when they gave their opinions of Starbucks, their sentiments were not nearly as favorable, even though every other aspect of the experiment was the same. By expressing a more favorable opinion of the students and faculty at their own university compared with those elsewhere, the low-self-esteem, self-conscious individuals seemed to have regained their equilibrium and no longer defended the brand.
These studies provide evidence that brands are indeed viewed as part of the self. But many questions remain. What does it take for a brand to take up a position in the self? How many brands, not to mention other people and beloved objects, do we carry around as part of ourselves, and what does it take to dislodge them? Lee’s future research will continue to flesh out how brands become incorporated into the mosaic of the self.
“A brand is very intangible—in a way, the brand goes even beyond the product itself or the actual object,” Lee says. “So from a psychological perspective, it’s interesting to consider the dynamic relationship between a consumer and the brands that they consume.”
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Veronique Greenwood is a science writer based in New York City.
Lisjak, Monika, Angela Y. Lee, and Wendi L. Gardner. 2012. “When a Threat to the Brand Is a Threat to the Self: The Importance of Brand Identification and Implicit Self-Esteem in Predicting Defensiveness.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38(9): 1120–1132.
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