Halloween has barely passed, and the Christmas commercials are already going strong. Marketing can play a powerful role in the choices we make, and though some have strong brand loyalties, clever advertising campaigns can suck in even the most stalwart. Past research has shown that we actually take on the attributes of the brands we come into contact with—people act more creatively after being exposed to Apple advertising, and more honestly after Disney. But why do brands have this effect on us, given that they are, after all, just brands, and not exactly sentient beings?
Recent research from Chicago Booth’s Ann L. McGill, the Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing, and Behavioral Science, suggests that we may actually see brands as, well, “human.” In fact, the more anthropomorphized a brand is, the more our behavior reflects its characteristics, for better or for worse.
In one of her studies, people were asked think about what Kellogg’s cereal or Krispy Kreme donuts might be like if they were human—it’s not hard to imagine a healthy, active person and a couch potato, respectively. Participants were later asked to visualize how they would behave in everyday situations, like whether they’d opt for the stairs or the elevator. As you’d guess, people who’d been envisioning a “humanized Kellogg” were more likely to opt for the stairs, whereas those who’d imaged a personified Krispy Kreme said they’d take the elevator.
Similar results were found when participants were prompted to believe that Volvo—a notoriously safe brand of car—was a brand that either worked with them or for them. People who believed that Volvo was a “servant” made riskier decisions in a gambling scenario later on, but participants who believed Volvo was a “partner” were more cautious in their bets.
The more humanized the brand, the more receptive we are to its pull. If you’re trying not to go crazy this holiday season, whatever you do, don’t imagine Bose or Sony as temptresses who want you to take them home… Just keep telling yourself they’re things, not people. Of course, if you do want to splurge a little, then go ahead and imagine them with all the human charms and sensibilities you wish.