Does Your Brand Serve You, Or Feel More Like Your Partner? Materialists Feel Served

Remember Charlie the Tuna?  Or Tony the Tiger? (I realize I'm dating myself).

Most consumers enjoy it when advertisers anthropomorphize their products in branding and advertising.  But a new study says some people take it too far, feeling superior to anthropomorphized popular products.

I know it sounds a little crazy but hear me out. reports on a recent study by a Johns Hopkins University researcher that found that some consumers ― materialists who strongly link possessions to happiness and who tend to have poor personal relationships ― regard anthropomorphized popular products as servants over which they can assert power and gain control that they otherwise lack in their lives.

According to Johns Hopkins Carey Business School Associate Professor Hyeongmin (Christian) Kim, the lead author of the study, materialists prefer a servant brand to a partner brand when the brand is anthropomorphized, and respond more favorably to an anthropomorphized servant brand than do nonmaterialists.

Since the 1990s, most academicians studying this phenomenon have agreed that  anthropomorphized brands reflect a “brand as partner” relationship between consumer and product. To give an example: The combined contributions of homeowner and lawn mower create a neatly trimmed yard.

"Through their advertising, companies signal whether a brand is a partner or a servant,” Kim said in an interview. “Most consumers, materialists and non-materialists alike, just passively take in this information; they don’t waste a lot of cognitive energy on what it means. However, different consumers respond differently to the signals. When materialists encounter an anthropomorphized servant brand, they sense an opportunity to fulfill their need to dominate something. They would rather dominate other people, but socially that’s not an easy thing to accomplish. So, for this type of consumer, the next best thing is to dominate a servant brand.”

What is a servant brand?  Whether you think of a brand as a partner or a servant affects how you behave when reminded of that brand. So, for example, having a safe partner makes people more risk averse. But having a safe servant produces the opposite effect.

Say what?  It all depends on whether you look at a brand as a "partner," or as a "servant."

A key piece of the process, Kim notes, is that “the brand must have human attributes. That’s what materialists are responding to in their desire to have control. The feeling wouldn’t be the same toward an objectified brand [that is, one lacking human attributes] or an entirely inanimate object like a rock. It has to be anthropomorphized.”

Non-materialists don’t register this effect, because they place no value in a master-servant relationship, Kim adds. They prefer partner brands, which lend themselves to relationships in which the consumer’s trust develops over an extended time. puts it this way about the Volvo automobile, which is perceived as extremely safe. In an experiment researchers manipulated whether participants saw the Volvo as a partner ("Volvo. Works With You. Helping You Take Care of What's Important.") or a servant ("Volvo. Works For You Taking Care of What's Important.") Participants were asked to think of the brand as a person, and then were asked questions about what risks they would take in a gambling situation, and finally how likeable they found the Volvo brand.

People who dislike Volvo and people who see Volvo as a servant both become more willing to take risks. People who saw the brand as a partner and liked it said they would take fewer risks; people who saw it as a partner and disliked it said they would take more risks. The opposite was true when the Volvo was seen as a servant: those who liked it said they would take more risks, and those who disliked it said they would take fewer risks.

Still don't get it?  That makes two of us.

It all boils down to, does your iPad make you feel like you are a creative genius at the top of your game? Or does your Toro mower make you feel powerful?


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