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strategy and business
 / Autumn 2012 / Issue 68(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Social Life of Brands

Imagine setting out to buy a relatively complex product, like a mobile telephone. You might walk into a retail electronics store with an expectation based on years of experience and perceptions, ingrained in the reflexive (Thinking Fast) networks of your brain, about “geeky” technology, manipulative service contracts, and unhelpful salespeople. This pattern of thought arises instantaneously when you enter, making you skeptical of sales arguments.

But if friends have told you ahead of time that they had a positive experience at that store location, you may slow down your thinking a bit. Then suppose the salesperson you encounter is skilled and knowledgeable enough to describe other uses for the phone that resonate with your needs — for example, as a navigation system that can help you find restaurants in unfamiliar neighborhoods. The reflective, Thinking Slow parts of your brain might come to the forefront. Repeated experiences with a salesperson who is honest and knowledgeable might lead you to develop a feeling of trust toward that retail store. If you keep returning, you might sooner or later revert to Thinking Fast, but now with a higher degree of brand loyalty embedded in your day-to-day behavior. Within the brain, loyalty can become a habit.

The flip side of the coin also holds; for example, if you can’t easily return a garment or resolve a frustrating banking problem, your brain might register the same type of conflict and negative emotion that it would if a friend betrayed you. Distaste for that company’s brand would then color the starting point of your future interactions with the brand via the Thinking Fast system. In either case, when the brain is motivated to expend energy on the Thinking Slow system, and there is good reason to change basic attitudes about the company and its products, the consumer is more likely to feel that change.

The Social Nature of the Brand

Brand loyalty, when ingrained this way, also makes an individual more likely to talk about the brand with others — which, in turn, reinforces the loyalty. Thinking is social or at least deeply affected by human interaction. Some brands, such as BMW, Burberry, Coca-Cola, Heineken, Lego, Nike, Starbucks, Virgin, and Volkswagen, have tapped into consumers’ hearts and minds at various times because they are associated with a sense of community.

Since Aristotle, philosophers have identified social relationships (in addition to reason and emotion) as important factors in persuasion and influence. Starting in the 1930s, social psychologists verified experimentally the importance of social relationships in influencing attitudes and behavior; beginning in the 1970s, behavioral economists confirmed that market interactions also have a strong emotional and cognitive component.

Now, a growing number of social psychologists and marketing researchers use social media to study the link between social norms and purchasing decisions. They are finding that the context of a community influences how people interpret their experiences, and may shape their willingness to have an authentic relationship with a brand, rather than just engage in a transaction. For example, when people expect others they know to react with approval to a product or service, they are more likely to react positively themselves.

Neuroscience research also suggests that social cues shape the way the brain responds to information. Social cognitive neuroscientists and neuroeconomists, including Greg Berns, Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, Vasily Klucharev, Malia Mason, Michael Norton, Hilke Plassmann, and Jamil Zaki, have shown that preferences — and the neural responses involved in computing those preferences — tend to change depending on whether people have been told what other people think.

The brain doesn’t process all people equally. It has long been known by social psychologists that human beings cognitively favor some people over others. William Cunningham and Jay Van Bavel (director of the social perception and evaluation lab at New York University) have found that the systems in the brain that signal motivational relevance are more active when people see other people who are members of their team or group, in comparison to outsiders.

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  1. Charles Gremillion, Make Their Day: The Power to Make Guests Happy (Tribe, 2011): By the director of Embassy Suites’ brand culture, on the power of a great customer relationship.
  2. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011): Compelling guide to the two overarching systems that govern thought.
  3. Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (Jossey-Bass, 2002): How to build a business that meets the drives to acquire, bond, learn, and defend.
  4. Jim Stengel, Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies (Crown Business, 2011): Research-driven manifesto on the link between what brands stand for and how they prosper.
  5. Maritz Institute
  6. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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