What’s Love Got To Do With It?

April 28, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Why do brands want people to love them so badly?

If you’re a normal human being, hearing marketers talking about people loving brands can be baffling. Love is deeply personal. Can we really feel that passionately about a company that makes trainers or mobile phones? If we’re to believe a lot of the ‘thought leadership’ in advertising, the answer is yes, but how realistic is it to expect such a deep relationship between brands and consumers?

Neil Davidson is Managing Partner of agency HeyHuman, who have recently done some behavioural research on this subject that uncovered that 75% of people define easyJet as a “friend with benefits”; 60% have a “secret fling” with McDonald’s and 70% still have a “special relationship” with the NHS. Having watched him questioning the notion of ‘brand love’ at Advertising Week Europe, we interviewed him to go a little deeper into the subject.


The Beak Street Bugle: What’s your problem with the phrase ‘brand love’?
Neil Davidson:
‘Brand love’ is one of those terms that people in marketing all use regularly. It just drops into conversation. But I wonder how often people just nod and say, ‘of course we want brand love,’ without really questioning what we mean by that. Its attractiveness is also its danger. You would never criticise brands for aspiring for people to love them – but for me, it’s quite often too simplistic and also doesn’t dissect what that definition really looks like.

So, way back when, we used to talk about ‘Lovemarks’ [a concept coined by Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts] – which is incredibly emotionally engaging and aspirational. It gets people up in the morning! Doing new things for the brand! Actually, though, how directional and helpful is it? To me, that’s the big challenge.

It’s being aware that there are other ways to go that may be easier to achieve, more effective for the brand and quicker. There’s been a lot of research into human relationships; less research on brand relationships. Think about how many types of relationships you have in your personal life – and then think about how many different types of love relationships you have in your personal life. ‘Love’ would never be the one descriptor for all of those: there’s paternal love; there’s broader family love, there’s ‘true’ love, there’s love of friends... etc. And yet, when it comes to brands, we just talk about ‘love’!

Love has got many forms for brands. Understand what type of love you want. Or, do you actually want brand love?

BSB: Is it even possible for people to feel emotions like love for a made- up entity such as a brand?
The challenge is that you’re talking about something that’s either not real, or else is ‘just’ a physical object. Can you feel love for something? This is one of the things we’ve researched. And we found some people would talk about it in those kinds of terms – but they wouldn’t make it as simplistic as: ‘I love that brand.’ They would talk about a certain type of relationship with a brand that is in the love space, but they would describe it differently.

A good example is how everybody always talks about Apple. Interestingly, a lot of marketing people talk about how people ‘love Apple’ as a brand. However, in our research people talked about Apple being their ‘best friend’ rather than a brand that they had a love relationship with. Obviously that overlaps – but my question would be: What would Apple do differently if they thought their opportunity was for a ‘best friends’ relationship rather than a ‘love’ relationship? Which one is more forgiving? Which one takes you in one direction and which one takes you in a different direction?

Another bit of research found that if you build up a trust relationship as a brand, people are less likely to forgive you if you do something wrong. Whereas, if you set up a more light-hearted relationship, you are more likely to be forgiven. It’s interesting if you looked at, say, a Lloyds or a Barclays versus the brand that is Virgin; they’re both in financial services. You could argue, on that piece of research, that people are more likely to forgive Virgin the next crash, the next indiscretion, the next overcharging. For financial services brands, it’s in the folklore: ‘We must build trust.’ Well, maybe you should – but once you build a serious relationship then you’ve delineated what that relationship is all about. Whereas, if you’re Virgin and it’s kind of ‘Live your life!’, ‘Embrace the world!’ – slightly cheeky, based on Richard Branson – then almost inadvertently they’re setting up a relationship that’s delineated differently. People could be more forgiving when a Virgin brand messes something up. I don’t think people talk about that.

The interesting thing, for me, is if we’re going to use useful and thoughtful parallels between brand relationships and human relationships. So, for example, how often do you have a friend who you probably see once a week, which for various reasons might be four times more than you see your family? You don’t necessarily have to build a deep relationship to have a regular relationship. This challenges some of the CRM [customer relationship management] thinking: What is CRM about? How does it work? Is it like your mate who’s always texting saying: ‘Do you want to go to the pub tonight?’, so you end up going to the pub? Or is it like your mum, who makes you feel you should go and see her once a month?

BSB: So, deep, loving relationships might not be as desirable as regular, friendly ones?
I know that personally I fly easyJet more than I might, just because I can book a flight on my mobile app. Now that I’ve discovered the British Airways app, things might go slightly differently there – it’s that ease point.
People talk about UX [user experience] and things like that being incredibly important. I think, in a lot of ways, this research elevates disciplines like UX to a different level. It’s not just about removing barriers; it’s about doing things that will create a much more emotionally engaging relationship. It does seem that the research that’s been done on this is saying it’s creating these emotionally positive responses in the brain, which previously we used to just talk about as ‘brand love’, or something like that. It muddles with that spectrum.

Maybe UX isn’t sexy, but when you think about brands such as Über and others that just deliver somebody else’s service, brands which are on the rise, then the ones that are going to win and create an emotional engagement are the ones that are using technology to make it easy. That isn’t necessarily sexy, but I wonder whether sometimes these brands that will come up will be because they’re created by people who don’t even know the old market models. For them it’s just: ‘How do I make somebody’s life better?’

There has got to be an emotionally engaging part to this as well, but if I always know that with, say, thetrainline.com I’m always going to pay a pound more – because that is the charge – then me thinking it’s a cuddly brand is only going to be part of the equation. They’ve got to make life easier as well for me to make me think: ‘It’s only a pound.’

So the old rules still apply: appeal to people’s most basic motivations, connect with them and do it in a simple way. That doesn’t mean you can’t use whizzy technology, but it does mean you should think about the level of complexity that you might be tempted to create just because you can.
BSB: Do you think too many brands aspire to being loved when they might do better fostering a more pragmatic relationship with people? ND: There will always be brands that pull it off. They will be the ones that always get quoted whenever anyone does a workshop where people say: ‘My favourite brand is... ’ I suppose the challenge is, where human beings run a brand, then people want to get up in the morning and think they’re either working on a brand like that, or striving to create a brand like that.

Even going back to old brands, Waitrose giving away a free newspaper and free coffee at the weekend isn’t sexy, but on another level it’s genius! It shows they understand their audience and what matters to that audience in terms of making their life better. You don’t need technology to do that. The amount of people I hear waxing lyrical about their free coffee and newspaper from Waitrose! It’s not a big thing, but it’s sometimes going to be the little things that are disproportionately important.

I’d really want brands to ask what kind of relationship they want and why – before they go: ‘We want to be loved.’ Because we all know that in real life, people who walk about going ‘I want to be loved by everybody!’ aren’t necessarily the most balanced people!

I think we want it both ways as brands. We want to steal the human relationship analogies, but we also want to ignore the bits that ‘aren’t helpful’ – even though they are actually helpful. Is it realistic for every brand to be loved? Of course not. How many types of love are there? There isn’t just one type. How many other types of relationships are there? And why are we ignoring that?

‘Lovemarks’ is a brilliant sales pitch, but Lovemarks has been around for a long time now and the world has changed. It’s time to look a bit deeper at the brand relationship.

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