Will You Brand Love Me Tomorrow?

Google “brand love” and the responses are evenly split. Half the pieces say no modern brand can thrive without it. Half of the pieces say it doesn’t exist.

You can see why it’s a seductive idea. Brand love tells marketers that every brand can be special – in fact that every brand deserves and needs to be special. In an era where marketing is under cost pressure, where customer obsession is a mantra, and where the owners of big brands nervously watch the rise of Direct-to-Consumer competitors who claim a special bond with their subscribers, it’s hardly surprising this is a popular concept.

On the other side is the Byron Sharp school of thought, where brand love is a foolish notion. In this model, the relationships with people have with brands are largely transactional. Brands create mental availability through share of voice, share of shelf and their distinctive assets, and the most available brand wins. Branding is a dog-eat-dog world in which salience and distinctiveness are all that matters, and reach and penetration are key.

Which side is correct? Is brand an object of undying affection, or simply the lubricant in a brief consumer hookup?

Brand Love and Behavioural Science

Let’s look at the question from a behavioural science standpoint. As the behavioural economist Gerd Gigerenzer puts it, people generally look to make “fast and frugal” choices – decisions that are quick and easy. We are satisficers not maximisers – we look for choices that lead to good enough results, not to perfect outcomes. Brands you recognise quickly and make themselves available are at a distinct advantage, and we’ve discovered that a simple measurement of brand Fame is a strong tracker of current market share.

It’s hard to see much role for brand love in a world of good-enough decisions. Of course there will be a subset of any brand’s customers who genuinely adore it. But in general, as Sharp’s How Brands Grow demonstrates, most growth comes from widening your pool of occasional users – by making yourself more available and more distinctive.

Brand love – if it exists – is an optional extra. And even its proponents may have stretched the idea beyond its original use. When former Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts introduced the idea of lovemarks – one of Byron Sharp’s favourite targets – he intended it to refer to an elite subcategory of brands, not that it was something every brand could or should aspire to.

Case closed, then? Not quite. Fame explains current market share very well, but it isn’t as good at explaining movement in share – branding isn’t just a case of “the rich get richer”. And while love isn’t necessary for brands, emotion does play a part.

The True Role of Emotion

Emotion guides and simplifies decision-making. As Daniel Kahneman put it, “how do I feel about this?” is a great proxy for the difficult question of “what do I think about this?” Emotion helps to encode experiences as good, bad or indifferent in memory, simplifying decision-making, making certain options more available than others. Excluding emotion from the branding equation entirely is dogmatic.

We include emotion in our Fame, Feeling and Fluency brand strength model. People like winners, and Fame naturally correlates strongly with Feeling. But the surplus or deficit Feeling – the positive or negative emotion people feel after we account for existing market share – is an indicator of future growth or decline.

How do brands generate positive Feeling? In large part, through advertising. How people feel about a brand’s advertising will benefit how they feel about the brand in the months to comeShare of voice alone doesn’t explain much of a brand’s share change over the next six months. But when you factor in positive emotion towards an ad, the prediction of share change becomes far more accurate, as our comprehensive advertising validations have shown.

Where brand love advocates go wrong is in vastly overstating their case. You don’t need to love a brand to buy it. But if you like it even a little more than the competition, that can be enough to gently nudge your decision in its direction. Even in durables categories where information is plentiful and decisions are rare, a slight emotional advantage can make a difference and cut through the forest of product detail.

A tickle of affinity might count for as much as a passionate brand embrace – even if you don’t know why you feel it.

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