Emotional Branding Pays Off illusion

Behavioural loyalty is strongly correlated with propensity to agree to ‘brand love’ survey questions but…… most lovers still buy other brands, and most of a brand’s buyers don’t love it.

John Rossiter & Steve Bellman (2012) “Emotional Branding Pays Off – how brands meet share of requirements through bonding, commitment and love”, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol.52, No.3, pages 291-296.

Rossiter and Bellman (2012) purport to show how consumers’ attachment of “strong usage relevant emotions” to a brand affects behavioural loyalty. All they actually show is that if you buy a brand more then you are more likely to agree (on a market research survey) to positive statements about that brand. We’ve known for 50 or so years that people do this – that stated attitudes reflect past behaviour. Or more succinctly: attitudes reflect loyalty.

Specifically Rossiter & Bellman showed that people who ticked “I regard it as ‘my’ brand” tended to report that this brand made up more of their category buying (than for buyers who didn’t (regard it as their brand)). What an amazing discovery!

“I regard it as ‘my’ brand” was, by far, the most common of the ’emotional attachments’ they measured – with about 20% of the buyer bases of particular brands of beer, instant coffee, gasoline, and laundry detergent ticking this box. It was also most associated with higher share of requirements (behavioural loyalty). I’m not surprised because it is most like a direct measure of behavioural loyalty. If I mostly buy this brand of coffee then I’m much more likely to tick “I regard it as ‘my’ brand”. If I buy another brand(s) more then I’m hardly likely to tick that I regard this one as my special brand.

So reasonably we’d call this question (“I regard it as ‘my’ brand”) a measure of reported behavioural loyalty, and so it would have to be highly associated with any other measure of reported behavioural loyalty. But Rossiter & Bellman in classic sleight-of-hand call this question a measure of “bonding”, which they say is a measure of an emotion (not a self-report of behaviour)! Naughty naughty.

On safer ground their measure of “brand love” was if brand buyers agreed “I would say that I feel deep affection for this brand, like ‘love’, and would be really upset if I couldn’t have it”. Interestingly, hardly any of any brand’s buyers ticked this box. Just 4% of the average beer brand’s (male) buyers, just 4% of the average laundry detergent’s (female) buyers, 8% of the average instant coffee brand’s (female) buyers, and a mere 0.5% of the average gasoline brand’s (male) buyers. Restricting the samples to the specific gender that represents the main weight of buyers reduced the proportion of light and lower involvement category buyers. This would have increased the incidence of brand love yet it was still about as low as is possible. Rossiter & Bellman wrote that these results “reveal the difficulty of attaining strong attachment-like emotions”. Hmmm, well yes and these results also reveal how successful brands largely do without brand love.

With so very few of any brand’s buyers agreeing that they feel deep affection for the brand we would expect the few that did would be quite different from the average. We’d expect that they would be the heaviest, most loyal in the buyer base. And these lovers did report higher behavioural loyalty though it was far from absolute (100% share of category buying). In fact, ‘lovers’ only reported buying the brand about half the time (50% SoR). Behavioural loyalty is strongly correlated with propensity to agree to ‘brand love’ questions but…… most lovers still buy other brands, and most of a brand’s buyers don’t love it.

Rossiter & Bellman interpret their results differently. Their article title says emotional branding pays off, even if the article does nothing to investigate marketing practices. They act as if they are unaware of the research going back decades that shows, over and over, that usage affects propensity to react to attitudinal type survey questions (see Romaniuk & Sharp 2000). Instead, this single cross-sectional survey data is supposed to show that if marketers (somehow) run advertising that presents attachment emotions, then consumers will link these to the brand, and then change their behaviour to buy that brand more often than they buy rival brands. Rossiter and Bellman’s results show nothing of the sort, their clearly written article turns out to be highly misleading. Yet I fear that this will not stop many unscholarly academics citing the article, and many believers in this discredited theory citing it as evidence to support their blind faith. Beware of such nonsense.

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