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Reaching the unreachables

Want to find a whole new market for your product or brand? New research shows adding a little personality to what you offer could have one particular group eating out of your hands.


Whether it’s a solitary sandwich on the first day of a new job or standing in the kitchen at a party where you don’t know a soul, social exclusion is an emotion that pretty much everyone has felt. There’s a lot of it out there, so it stands to reason that tapping into that feeling could be the next big growth area for brands.

Dr Eric Levy

Dr Eric Levy

But what’s the best way of reaching these consumers? Take a lesson from the Michelin Man, says Dr Eric Levy, Lecturer in Marketing at Cambridge Judge Business School. His new research has found that socially excluded people are far more likely to respond to anthropomorphised brands, where inanimate objects are given human attributes. So the thinking goes that if it’s got a face, like M&Ms, a personality, like the chubby tyre mascot, or a voice, like Nikon’s I Am Sexy camera, it’s going to appeal more to those who don’t just want a product but a relationship.

Existing research into consumer behaviour has shown that people who are socially excluded will prefer products that others prefer – it’s a way of making friends. But Levy’s study has found that anthropomorphised brands can be even more powerful for the socially excluded.

We are the first to show that you can actually see the brand as your friend when you are socially excluded,” he says. “So instead of reconnecting with an actual human individual, you can find a brand.

Levy and his co-authors, Rocky Peng Chen and Echo Wen Wan of the University of Hong Kong, used a variety of techniques on students in both the UK and Hong Kong to create a feeling of social exclusion in the participants. These included an online ball-tossing game where the game was fixed to direct more tosses towards those being manipulated towards a feeling of social inclusion and fewer towards those being manipulated towards feeling socially excluded.

The series of experiments were devised to test the researchers’ three hypotheses. Firstly, they theorised, socially excluded consumers will prefer humanised products; secondly, they’re more likely to see those products as partners rather than seeking out actual humans for interaction; and thirdly, they’re less likely to pick products with “low-warmth” personalities. That’s brands such as Red Bull or Levi’s, explains Levy, which project a tough image, rather than the warm colours and smiley logos of Betty Crocker baking mix products or M&Ms. Their study – “The effect of social exclusion on consumer preference for anthropomorphized products” – confirmed all their theories. It’s currently being revised for advanced review at a journal.

But might these adverts risk another kind of exclusion – putting off those confident, social butterflies who don’t feel socially excluded? Not according to the research, says Levy. “There’s not that much of a penalty for included consumers when you humanise brands. So if you get a larger share of the excluded consumers without really harming the included ones too much.”

The major managerial takeaway from the study, he says, is this: humanising brands is even more effective for people who are lonely and happen to feel socially excluded in the moment – think back, again, to that first day in a new job. It’s not about just targeting lonely geeks, but all of us.

Companies are catching on that you have to relate to people in a more human way,” he points out. “We already have, for example, adverts where cars are presented as human. But this strategy is even more effective when people feel socially excluded and lonely. Advertisement and situational factors also make people feel excluded. If you have an advert showing someone feeling socially isolated, that can remind viewers of when they felt isolated too and that increases the desire for humanised products.

It’s also vital, he says, to remember that not all brands necessarily lend themselves to this kind of humanisation, or at least brands need to ensure they create the right sub-brand or name for any product they wish to market to socially excluded consumers. One of the study’s experiments asked students to choose which sweets brand they would prefer as their new “friend” – the “low-warmth” black tin featuring the “Dark Queen” character versus the white, warm tin of the “Bright Princess.” 86 per cent of socially excluded students picked the Bright Princess.

However, Levy points out that that doesn’t necessarily mean a brand has to feature warm colours or smiley faces to work – Levi’s jeans is a perfect example of a successful low-warmth brand. But it does mean that branders need to consider whether or not socially excluded consumers are their priority marketplace, and, if so, what will appeal to them.

“It could be that certain types of products will be better suited to humanised brands,” he says. “So, for example, if you’ve got a tech brand, you might want to humanise it so it doesn’t feel quite so cold. If you have a low-warmth brand like Red Bull, you may not want to humanise it as much. Their logo is two bulls. It’s simple, it’s effective and it’s all about dominance. For that brand, it might work better than a friendly face on the logo.

“But Pepsi changed their logo to make it a bit more like a face. It’s more of a warm and friendly brand. If you’re going to humanise your brand, there’s lots of ways to do it and lots of ways to think about – and one of those vital factors is whether or not your consumers are socially excluded.”