|Welcome to Econ 050: Economics and business that matters to the Netherlands and the world. In each episode, Northern Times editor Traci White interviews a new expert about everything from trade wars to the psychology in your shopping cart. This podcast is a co-production between The Northern Times and the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen.|
Brand relationships: Assistant marketing professor Jing Wan on why we consider some brands as friends
Let’s pretend that you have just moved to a new country – for many readers, that won’t require very much imagination – and you’re in the grocery store. The layout and the products on the shelves are all still pretty foreign, even down to the shapes of the bottles and the size of the cereal boxes. Suddenly, you see a familiar face: Mr. Clean! That bald, muscled man smiles up at you on the cleaning supplies aisle, and you find yourself smiling back. No, it’s not a living thing, but giving a product a human name and in some cases a literal face can almost make it feel like running into an old friend when you see that brand in the shop. There are plenty of Dutch examples, too: Dr. Oetker pizza, the Albert Heijn hamsters, the ING bank lion. That phenomenon – the humanization of brands – is the topic of assistant professor Jing Wan’s recent research, so here’s our conversation about the psychology of your shopping cart and just how and why we develop relationships with brands.
On whether you need to relate to a product to want to buy it:
Jing Wan: We can also say while they’re not human entities. The degree to which this human intention or anthropomorphism needs to take place before someone can have a relationship, per se, with a brand, I guess that’s up for debate. Personally because I am so deep into anthropomorphism, I kind of think you need at least some level of realizing that the brand could have an intention or awareness or a sense of relationship to you.
On the ways that we humanize products:
Jing Wan: It could be some simple like a mascot, it could be an animal. Animals do have intentions, so it’s kind of that one degree above or below, I guess, with humans, but you can also have things like making the product have some sort of physical attributes that look like a human face or human body. So think about bottles like water bottles. POM [pomegranate juice brand] does this, POM is even more than in your face about it, there’s that curve that looks kind of like a human body. If you look at the headlights and the grill of some cars, you can see a face. So there’s cars smiling, some of them are scowling. So that’s one way so you can you sort of physical attributes to get you thinking, “Oh, yeah that thing looks like a face. It’s smiling at me” or “It looks angry at me”. You can also have products that kind of speak to you in first person language. So sometimes the product be saying to you, “Hey, I am blah blah blah, I do these things”, versus a mere description in third person language, saying “This is a product does this, does that.” So if a product is speaking to you, then you kind of feel like, “Yeah, it’s telling me something. It has a mind and that’s why it’s talking to me.” So when I say things like “it has a mind” or whatever, it’s not necessarily that everyone thinks for sure.” This washing machine has intentions. It is going to wash my clothes one way or another.” It’s the sense maybe there’s something there. Maybe it’s kind of human-like, it just reminds me of it of these human qualities.
On what happens when technological products become too humanized:
Jing Wan: There’s a point of humanizing technology called the Uncanny Valley. You can add all these human traits. So right now, it’s just voices. There’s no face. Siri doesn’t have a face. Alexa doesn’t have a face. They’re just unembodied voices floating around. But there’s been advances in robotics where they’re trying to now put a body there right there. There’s an android. There’s been a lot of different tests on getting a customer to try to interact with it like a full robot person for the robot to provide the service rather than a human agent. And there’s been some sort of mixed results in terms of consumers’ reactions to that. There’s a certain part with his novelty, right? Like” that’s so weird. There’s no human there, yet it looks kind of human and it’s talking to me”. So people may want to approach it just because it’s novel but there’s a degree where are you get a bit too human, but not fully human that people start feeling uncomfortable and it’s called the Uncanny Valley because there’s like this dip in how good you feel towards this other agent and it’s uncanny because it’s like it looks like human looks like it has human traits and tendencies. It’s so close, yet there’s something clearly wrong with it.
On why we want to humanize products:
Jing Wan: Even as a young child or a baby, you’re just you’re trying to learn about humans. That’s the number one threat, but that’s also the number one resource, so it’s good for you, it helps you, it’s good for your health to know about humans and build up a knowledge base about humans. And then we have this tendency to just over apply it, so then it becomes really easy for marketers to then trigger this humanness.
There’s lots of other motivations kind of going into it, which is the sense that we want to belong. That’s just a general human tendency. We want to be able to connect with others as you want others to like us. So using these products or using brands can serve as a substitute or at least a compliment to other human relationships you already have.
On whether brands should have a literal voice on social media:
Jing Wan: If you’re just not as good as other brands, maybe don’t take the strategy, right? There’s a certain amount of novelty to it that you may be able play off of, like, “Yeah, I’m a funny brand, look at me”. But if you’re not doing as good of a job as your competitor, especially as your direct competitor, that might not be a good strategy to take because you’re going to look bad sad or worse in comparison at the very least. There are some other brands where it feels bit disingenuous when they start talking to you as if they’re a person. Like when airlines start doing this or when banks start doing this? We never had a close relationship with them in the first place right, and we don’t fully trust them. If they start trying to be buddy-buddy with you, then I don’t think that’s going to go over so well.