The nature of love is the essence of a strong brand

“I start with the idea that love is a way of valuing something.  It is a positive response toward the ‘object of love’—which is to say, anyone or anything that is loved.  In a manner quite special to itself, love affirms the goodness of this object.”

So begins the first volume of philosopher Irving Singer’s masterful trilogy, The Nature of Love.1

Singer argues that love includes two related components:  “appraisal” and “bestowal.”

Appraisal involves our valuation of an object’s (person, thing, or ideal) ability to satisfy our interests, our wants, our desires.  So in thinking about loving another person, we search for and find love in a person who meets our wants, who satisfies our interests, who meets our needs.  We desire him or her for certain characteristics or attributes that she/he has—face, hair, shape, intelligence, sense of humor, interests (and so on) that align with what we’re looking for.  This is appraisal.  We see a person as lovable based on a set of characteristics that matter to us as an individual.  In short, we love them because we find them lovable.

Bestowal involves giving an object emotional importance independent of its ability to satisfy our interests, needs, and desires.  We bestow value on an object when that object (again, a person, a thing, or an ideal) takes on a special value for us, when we care about it above and beyond its appraised value in our eyes.  Bestowal actually involves the creation of new value.  So thinking again about loving another person, we bestow value on our beloved when we come to value him/her for their own sake, over and above and apart from (and sometimes despite) his/her looks, personality, sense of humor, etc.  In short, unlike appraised love (we love them because we find them lovable), in bestowed love we find them lovable because we love them.

Both appraisal and bestowal play the same role in the brands we love.  Budweiser comes to mind as an example.  I have this friend, you see, who loves Budweiser—he says it’s for a variety of reasons:  it always quenches his thirst; he can always rely on its taste; the born-on date on every case assures him he’s buying fresh Budweiser (he’ll go so far as to remove several top cases to get at the freshest Bud); it never gives him a headache (like, say, PBR surely would); he can drink it all day and not get a hangover (not that he ever does drink it all day, he hastens to add).  Like millions of other Americans (over 100 million cases of Budweiser were sold in 2013, behind only Bud Light and Coors Light), he has personally appraised the value of Budweiser and found that he loves it. 

But that’s not all.  Over time this friend of mine has bestowed value on the Budweiser brand.  He has created personal value in the brand over and above what it does for him—well beyond how it satisfies him in so many ways.  He continues to love Budweiser despite the jokes friends make about his particularly poor taste, despite knowing full well that in this age of craft beer Budweiser is considered to be pretty much rot gut by beer aficionados (and beer aficionados are everywhere these days).  But this friend has been a Budweiser drinker since he was 16—it has become part of who he is.  He unselfconsciously looks for and orders Budweiser (if it’s on the menu, and more and more it’s not) when he’s out to dinner—even business dinners.  Over time you see, for my friend, Budweiser has become lovable—because he loves it.  He has bestowed love on the brand.

And you can’t argue that Budweiser is a lousy brand.  According to Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s most valuable brands, Budweiser ranks #25.  Why?  Because people (like my good friend) love it.  The nature of love is the essence of a strong brand.

One nagging question comes to mind.  How does Budweiser—how does any brand—love one back?  After all, love is strongest when it’s reciprocal—when the lover’s love for the beloved is returned in full. 

The topic for another post.


1Irving Singer (1925-2015) was an American professor of philosophy who was on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 55 years, retiring in 2013.  The Nature of Love comprises three volumes:  Plato to Luther, Courtly and Romantic, and The Modern World.  The quote above is from the first volume, ch.1, “Appraisal and Bestowal,” p3.  The February 15, 2015 New York Times obituary for Irving Singer began this way:

“Stung by family members urging him to be more affectionate, Irving Singer, a philosophy professor, spent years researching and writing a 1,300-page, three-volume examination of the subject titled The Nature of Love.

‘This, like so many philosophical works, began as an attempt to understand my own inadequacies,’ he told The New York Times in 1987. ‘Everyone in my family persuaded me that I ought to be more loving, which troubled me. So like most philosophers, I dealt with the criticism by constructing a theory and a philosophy which enabled me to dismiss their ideas.’”

How amazing is that.  Seriously.

On projective techniques

The goal in many of our projects is to identify the underlying emotions associated with competing brands or products, because emotions obviously play a central role in motivating consumer purchase decisions.  But expressing emotion for a brand or product isn’t easy for consumers, and so the challenge for the researcher is how best to tap into those emotions. 

Projective techniques employ analogy and metaphor to make it easier for consumers to think about and express emotions and images associated with a brand or a product.  But not all researchers see value in such techniques. 

The argument against projective techniques

I once had a senior colleague who had serious doubts about the effectiveness of projective techniques.  They might be thought of as cool, he argued; they might even help the researcher at least feel creative, but in and of themselves such techniques yield little more than broad generalities (at best), and empty, hackneyed cliches (at worst).  He offered examples:

  • “Every time I use brand personification, the results are so similar I could have written that section of the report in advance.  One brand is old and stodgy and wears a business suit, another is young and hip and wears khakis.”
  • “I’ve used an image sort many times, with results rarely rising above the level of cliché.  Invariably I’ll hear someone say, ‘I picked the photo of the lion because I feel proud to use that brand’.”
  • “In just one example using collage-making, participants were asked to create a collage expressing what it’s like to be a parent, and one of the more noteworthy creations featured a picture of a road winding through the mountains.  Truly surprising and deep, don’t you think?”

For this researcher, the examples represented the two big concerns he had about projective techniques: 

1. They are essentially a setup, because they are by definition limiting.  In a projective exercise, we establish the context and set the ground rules for participants.  You need to think of the brand as a person (not a car this time, or an animal, or a color, or a sound, etc.).  You need to choose from this specific set of photos.  You need to create the collage from magazines you happen to have available to you at home.  The true emotion might well lie outside the “prepackaged” set of stimuli used

2. They don’t yield real emotion.  To come up with a narrow, limited description of staggeringly complex feelings and motivations, consumers fall back into what’s easy and expected:  clichés and generalities that allow them to successfully complete this difficult exercise in a way that meets the approval of the researcher and fellow participants.

His solution to the challenge of tapping into underlying emotions for brands and products?  Researcher skill in (a) creating an open dialogue (“talk to me about brand X in whatever terms and context make the most sense to you”) and (b) in-depth probing (“I want to understand the nuances of how you personally feel”). 

The argument for projective techniques

In my experience, far from producing little more than broad generalities or empty cliches, projective techniques produce laser-like illumination of what we are trying to understand for our client.  At the very least, such techniques create a compelling visual image of a brand (or product) for management to keep in mind in developing marketing strategy; often, such techniques provide a veritable blueprint for management action. 

It’s true that in every brand personification exercise one brand is old and stodgy and wears a business suit, while another is young and hip and wears khakis; but I guarantee you the senior managers of the stodgy brand, sitting behind the one-way mirror, squirm a bit, shake their heads at what has become of their brand, and commit themselves to taking action.  There’s no future in being old and stodgy.

In an image sort, when a consumer says, "I picked the photo of a lion because I feel proud," it may be cliché to us as researchers, because we hear such reactions all the time, but it’s unlikely that consumer would have spoken of his/her pride without use of this projective technique.  Pride, after all, is a deeply felt emotion; you can bet the brand managers behind the glass made note of how their brand makes its users feel--and how, by extension, they might position their brand to tap that emotion. 

Every time I have used a projective technique—no matter the specific technique—I have come away with insight I couldn’t have uncovered without use of such a technique.  And, every time, our client has come away with a compelling visual image of its brand (or product) against the competition in the hearts and minds of consumers.

Yes, it’s true—in a projective exercise we establish the context for consumers.  But that doesn’t limit consumers’ thinking; it opens their thinking.  It allows them to think about something difficult to express (their emotional connection to a brand) using an analogy that provides a bridge from the familiar to the difficult.

"A good analogy or metaphor," noted psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker once wrote, "does not just invoke some chance resemblance between the thing being explained and the thing introduced to explain it.  It capitalizes on a deep similarity between the principles that govern the two things."

Projective techniques capitalize precisely on this notion of "deep similarities."  What may seem like "cliché and generality" for the seasoned research professional is not cliché and generality at all--it’s evidence of archetypal beliefs and emotions that reveal themselves precisely through the use of these various projective techniques.

So what?

Projective techniques are hardly new, but in an age where data (and especially big data) is becoming king, and where new and shiny qualitative techniques are increasingly de rigueur, it’s easy for tried and true qualitative approaches such as projective techniques to be like the baby that gets thrown out with the bathwater.  And that would be a big mistake, because data alone cannot answer important “why” questions, and new and shiny qualitative techniques shouldn’t replace techniques that have been proven to yield answers to what is often the most important question:  what is the fundamentally human element—the emotion component—of consumer decision-making and behavior.

The four STEPs to customer commitment

We have made the case that customer loyalty doesn’t (and can’t) truly exist, but customer commitment can and must be the goal for today’s and tomorrow’s best brands.  Further, we have offered a way to assess a brand’s level of customer commitment, the “Commitment Equation”1:


A high level of customer satisfaction, plus no really attractive alternatives, plus a high level of personal investment in the brand’s offerings means a highly committed customer base.  [See here for more.]

Of course, offering a way to assess how committed to your brand your customers are is only the first step.  Companies can take four specific STEPs beyond this to strengthen and grow commitment effectively among their customers:

Strong Basics:  Strong Basics are must-haves—the fundamentals.  Obviously, the better a brand performs at the fundamentals of what it does, the more satisfied customers will be, the less attractive alternatives will look, the more customers will feel they will lose too much if they switch.  What are the Strong Basics?  They are excellent products, superior customer service, compelling ancillary features and services, a price worth paying—the fundamentals of any business.

If a brand can find a way to be far superior to its competitors on the Strong Basics, that brand can build a highly committed customer base; but in today’s marketplace—particularly in mature product categories—such a level of superiority is hard to come by.  In her book, “Difference,” Harvard Business School marketing professor Youngme Moon makes the point clear:

“In category after category, it has become apparent that competitive differentiation is a myth. . . .  Companies have gotten so collectively locked into a particular cadence of competition that they appear to have lost sight of their mandate—which is to create meaningful grooves of separation from one another.  Consequently, the harder they compete, the less differentiated they become. . . .  They have become masters of a particular form of imitation.  Not differentiation, but imitation. . . .  The differences are there, but they are lost in a sea of sameness.”2

In a world where performance on the Strong Basics isn’t enough, brands need to look beyond these to build and strengthen customer commitment.  That’s where the Traps, Exclusivity, and Personalization parts of STEPs come into play.

Traps:  Traps are good things if you’re a lobsterman, not so much if you’re a lobster.  In the world of business, Traps are by definition a negative form of customer commitment.  But certainly one way to gain customer commitment is through devices that attract customers to the brand, and then immediately shut the door to their ability to exit.  The most obvious Traps are term contracts that lock in customers for some period.  Customers can always free themselves, but only at the cost of a financial penalty.  In our consumer research experience, contracts are too often the bane of the customer’s experience with brands that require them; and that makes Traps only a short-term commitment tool (especially if the brand is less than superior on the Strong Basics).  We hear customers say all the time, “I can’t wait for my contract to end, because when it does I’m gone.” 

Contracts may be the most obvious Trap, but they aren’t the only one.  There are countless instances where the customer isn’t particularly satisfied but feels stuck, because they can’t see a viable alternative to their current provider.  The most obvious instance of this kind of Trap is a monopoly, wherein the customer actually has no alternative; but there are also situations where the customer has alternatives but feels those alternatives are even worse than what they have, and so they feel stuck with their current brand as the least objectionable alternative.

A study by some European academics identified yet a different kind of Trap.  They found that a customer of a company that has very high satisfaction ratings overall tends to have few alternatives to go to, and therefore is less likely to churn, even if he or she is a relatively unsatisfied customer. 

Exclusivity:  Brands that offer something of value that no competitor does or can automatically reduce the attractiveness of those competitors and create a huge barrier to churn by creating a “too much to lose” situation in the mind of customers.  For example, in the pay-TV business there’s only one place to get the NFL Sunday Ticket—DIRECTV.   It’s a perfect example of the kind of exclusive offering that makes it difficult for Sunday Ticket subscribers to leave DIRECTV, even if they aren’t particularly happy otherwise.  The Sunday Ticket is DIRECTV’s masterstroke at creating Exclusivity:  it holds DIRECTV subscribers firmly in place. 

Personalization:  In the world of business, Personalization creates habit-forming products—offerings customers don’t want to put down and certainly don’t want to lose3.   Personalization (i.e., customization) is a hook that drives customer engagement and commitment.  The more a brand can personalize its product for customers, the more invested in the brand customers become, and the more (as a result) they have to lose if they were to switch. This is, in significant part, what is motivating Verizon FiOS’s recent (and much-discussed) move toward offering a la carte TV programming choices.  By giving their customers what they want—as much or as little as they desire—they are hoping to bring the Goldilocks Principle into play, driving customer affinity and commitment toward Verizon FiOS.  (For more, see  At the same time, the more a brand knows about its individual customers’ interests and behaviors, the more that brand can use such information to personalize its product.  There are at least two forms of personalization in the pay-TV business that make customers invested in their provider: 

(1) Recorded programming:  the more extensive the subscriber’s list of recorded programming, the more that customer has to lose if he/she thinks about switching (think “The Sopranos” or “House of Cards”)
(2) Easy discovery:  features that help customers easily discover new programming (via recommendations based on programming watched) help strengthen customers’ investment in their current provider 

Customers who use the recommendations feature to discover new programming know that a different provider would have to start from scratch in “learning” the customer’s programming interests and offering recommendations based on the customer’s viewing behavior. 

The bottom line here is that if you want customers who are committed to your brand—unmoved by competitive offers—you need to engage them with your brand.  And the best way to fully engage your customers goes well beyond superiority on the Strong Basics of what you offer, and doesn’t even include Traps, like term contracts.  The best way to separate your brand from your competitors is to double down on whatever Exclusivity and Personalization you have to offer or can develop:  exclusive offerings that make your customers realize they have too much to lose to even consider going elsewhere and personalized offerings that get your customers thoroughly engaged and fully invested in your brand.

1 For use and development of the term “commitment equation” in a very different context, see Heidi Reeder, “Commit to Win: How to Harness the Four Elements of Commitment to Reach Your Goals,” Penguin Group, NY, 2014.
2 See Youngme Moon, “Different:  Escaping the Competitive Herd,” Crown Publishing Group, NY, 2010, pps 11-13.
3 See Nir Eyal, “Hooked:  How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” available through Amazon Digital Services.

Exit, voice, and commitment

Entropy isn’t just a central concept in the Second Law of Thermodynamics—it’s a central concept in the business world, too.  Decay—meaning lapses, even breakdown, in performance—is a constant threat, and management vigilance against this ever-present danger is an obvious requirement of the job. 

Managers typically find out about lapses in product/service performance in one of two ways:  exit or voice.   Customers stop buying the product or drop the service—that’s exit; or customers express their dissatisfaction with the product or service via whatever mechanisms are available to them—that’s voice.  In today’s world both exit and voice are typically assessed via a combination of systematic surveys and analysis of “big data” focused on current customers (voice) and former customers (exit).1

Exit and voice, however, are not necessarily equal partners in prompting management action.  Signs of growing customer dissatisfaction (voice) will typically get management attention—and action, but signs of growing exit will most certainly move management to remedial action.  Dissatisfaction typically hurts the pride but not the wallet; churn invariably hurts the pride and the wallet.

Management customarily responds to both exit and voice with corrective action:  see the problem, act on the problem, remediate the problem (or at least reduce its deleterious effects).

There’s a missed opportunity here, because corrective action is by definition after-the-fact action.  The missed opportunity is that of preventive action, and that’s where customer commitment comes in.  The more committed to your brand your customers are, the less their need to express dissatisfaction and the less likely they are to consider exit as an option. 

If you recall from our recent post, customer commitment comprises a combination of satisfaction, engagement, and investment.  Satisfaction isn’t enough—customers need to be fully engaged and fully invested in your brand in order to see no alternatives as more attractive than your brand, and in order to feel that they would have simply too much to lose by choosing an alternative over your brand.  That’s a committed customer base, and the more committed customers your brand has, the stronger reservoir of support management has in the face of the constant threat of a lapse in performance. 

We have recently completed the data collection phase on a study to measure the level of customer commitment among competitors in one specific sector—pay-TV service.  Stay tuned.

1 The foundation of the line of thought throughout this post comes from Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Harvard University Press, 1970.  This book is very seldom on its shelf in our company library, and it has been read and marked up so many times in its 44 years of existence that it’s falling apart at the seams—literally.