Brand attachment is not about the brand
It’s obvious enough that people can develop strong bonds with brands. But a recent USC Marshall School of Business study revealed the real power of “brand attachment.” It found that when people are deprived of their brands, they can actually suffer separation anxiety and will sacrifice quite a bit—in time, money, energy, and reputation—to get them back.
I can understand getting attached to your iPod, and even your university, but your oatmeal? Yet this study found strong attachment to all of those things. What is this brand attachment? This thing that makes strong men quake when deprived of their Quaker Oats?
The idea that brands are vehicles for expression of the self is old. But the new understanding of brand attachment is that brands can serve as an extension of the self. Brands don’t just reflect us, they are us.
This may not be what the USC authors had in mind when they used the word extension, but I think it’s useful to note that extension is part of what makes us human. We overran the planet not by evolution of our bodies, which takes eons, but by evolution of our extensions: tools, basically. Sharp rocks and lasers extend our hands; bicycles and space shuttles extend our legs; calculators and hard drives extend our brains. Arguably, extension applies to our emotional and psychological selves as well.
Think of cell phones. They extend both the physical self—our voice/ability to communicate—and the emotional self—via their direct role in mediating and managing our all-important relationships with others. Is it any wonder people are so devoted to them?
More insight comes from a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research showing that subconscious relationship styles developed in infancy affect brand attachment. “Anxiously attached” individuals, who at a deep level hold a negative view of themselves, are apparently more influenced by brands because they’re looking for external help to enhance their self-worth. Brand personalities let them project their ideal self-concept—as opposed to their actual, negative, self-concept—to others.
So if we want to create brands that inspire strong attachment, we need to come at it from the right angle. Remember:
- Your brand is not your brand. For your most devoted customers, your brand is literally them.
- Instead of asking what image you want to project, ask what image your customers want to project.
- Make sure that in addition to knowing who your customer is, you know whom he or she wants to be.