Susan Fournier on a New Science of Negative Brand Relationships

in Emerging Research, Faculty, Faculty in the News, Marketing, News
April 26th, 2013

From “Relating Badly to Brands,” appearing in the April 2013 Journal of Consumer Psychology

Brand managers may dream of customers relating to their brands as committed partners, best friends, soul mates, or allies, but what if a brand portfolio offers rocky marriages, one-night-stands, power plays, stalkers, and secret affairs?

How, for example, should the New York Philharmonic react to recent news that a large percentage of first-time ticket buyers felt “stalked” by their customer service calls? What about  frequent flyers’ mixed—and often negative—emotions about their airline of “choice”?

We recognize negative relationships with other people and appreciate how complex and powerful they can be. So why not in our bonds with brands?

A recent study by Boston University School of Management professor Susan Fournier and doctoral candidate Claudio Alvarez “Relating Badly to Brands” (Journal of Consumer Psychology, April 2013) calls for a new science of negative brand relationships, a field overlooked by much current research. Fournier is a professor of marketing and has been named one of academia’s most influential researchers for her work on brand theory.

Alerting brand managers to the importance of the negative

Fournier and Alvarez note that although negative brand relationships are more common and frequently more powerful, positive brand relationships are supported by much richer academic frameworks.  ”Negative brand relationships are in fact more common than positive relationships,” they write, “with an average split across categories of 55%/45% for negative and positive relationships, respectively….Without a formal accounting of negative relationships, our brand management frameworks are misleading and incomplete.”

Applying new data to a marketing theory by Park et al. called the “Attachment-Aversion continuum,” Fournier and Alvarez conduct two studies using subjects across four countries to identify the range of relationships people have with a variety of brands. They first identify four dimensions along which brand relationships vary: positive/negative, significant/superficial, equal/unequal power, and deliberate/not under my control. They then have consumers assign brands to categories resembling their own primary personal relationship dynamics.The results highlight 27 significant types of consumer-brand relationships, including “flings,” “broken engagements,” “stalker-prey,” “addict/dealer,” “fleeting acquaintance,” and more.

Are we really distant from all the “bad” brands in our lives?

One important finding from these studies is the challenging of the assumption that brand negativity stems from perceived distance between consumer and product. Building on their comparison between brands and interpersonal dynamics, the authors argue, “negative relationships do not all involve distanced self-connections and low interdependence between partners.” For instance, the authors point to past studies exploring the following brand relationships, encompassing both the passionate (or close) and the negative:

  • The ”monstrous relationships” fans have with the Twilight media brand, which justifies partner violence and emotional abuse as an ultimate act of protection and love
  • Products that generate compulsive consumption, addictions, and dependencies, from alcohol to cigarettes to social media
  • Credit card and consumer lending agencies, including ones where “consumers are lured into lending relationships with a courteous attitude and quick, easy credit offered under conditions that are not fully disclosed”

As negative brand relationships are common and cause damage to both consumers and companies, Fournier and Alvarez urge, “managing negatives may actually be more important for brand equity development than cultivating positive connections with brands.”

Read more about “Relating Badly to Brands” in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.