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Fancy a fling on the rebound (with a human-like brand)?

People who suffer social rejection are more attracted to human-like brands like the colourful M&M characters – and are more likely to seek a short-term “fling” relationship with these brands if they blame others (rather than themselves) for the rejection, finds research co-authored by Cambridge Judge Business School’s Dr Eric Levy.

Human-like brands are more appealing to certain consumsers.

Dr Eric Levy

Dr Eric Levy

Are people more attracted to the likes of the animated M&M characters, Tony the Tiger or the Michelin Man if they’ve just been socially rejected? If so, are they more likely to just seek a “fling” if they blame themselves or the other party for the rejection?

A just-published academic study co-authored at University of Cambridge Judge Business School concludes that people who feel socially excluded attempt to build relationships with brands imbued with human-like characteristics – known as “anthropomorphised” brands. Consumers who might feel socially excluded include people who suffer romantic setbacks, employees who feel ostracised at work, and new immigrants, says the study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Social exclusion is a “pervasive experience in consumers’ lives,” often due to being rejected or excluded in incidents involving family, friends or colleagues, the study says.

People who blame such exclusion on others are more likely to be drawn to “fling” brands in which consumers seek a short-term relationship with the brand, while people who blame themselves tend to seek “partner” brands for a longer-term relationship. The “fling” consumers were more attracted to a shampoo advertising tagline that said “Try me, enjoy our moment tonight“, while the “partner” consumers were drawn to the tagline “Together with a partner like me, enjoy our life forever“.

“Consumers form relationships with brands in similar ways to building relationships with people,” says the study. “Consumers thirsty for social relationships are interested in affiliating with brands that play particular roles,” and for people who blame others for their social exclusion “it is more appealing to embrace a fling brand which offers short-term rewards.”

Other well-known anthropomorphised brands include the giggling Pillsbury Doughboy and the California Raisins (a fictional music group created by California’s raisin industry). The great majority of famous examples are male, including most of the comical M&M figures.

The study helps point the way for more targeted use of anthropomorphised branding for the marketing and advertising industries.

“Companies now understand consumers’ psychological states better due to analysis of online and social media activity, so marketers can target consumers who feel socially excluded by promoting their brands in an anthropomorphic manner,” says study co-author Eric Levy, University Lecturer in Marketing at University of Cambridge Judge Business School. “They can also use different stories to market brands depending on whether consumers blame themselves or others for feeling socially excluded.”

The study – entitled “The Effect of Social Exclusion on Consumer Preference for Anthropomorphized Brands” – is co-authored by Rocky Peng Chen of Hong Kong Baptist University, Echo Wen Wan of the University of Hong Kong and Eric Levy of University of Cambridge Judge Business School. The research is based on more than 800 participants in the US, UK and Hong Kong.

The researchers first used an electronic cyberball game that caused participants to feel either socially excluded or included, by requiring the excluded to observe most of the game from the sidelines while the included were more active players – and then rating their exclusion feelings on a seven-point scale. Participants were then asked to choose a candy – such as an anthropomorphised M&M or non-anthropomorphised M&M – and the study found that excluded participants were far more likely than included participants to choose the human-like M&M.

To test the “fling” versus “partner” preference, the study focused on shampoo because prior research had found that shampoo can be perceived by consumers as a product with which they can have either a short-term or long-term relationship. The researchers then created a fictitious sub-brand of L’Oreal shampoo they called “Modi” – and the study’s participants read one of two advertising pitches.

To test the partner preference: “Hello, I am Modi, a new member of the L’Oreal family… Bring me home, and I will always be with you. Together with a partner like me, enjoy our life forever.”

To test the fling preference: “Hello, I am Modi, a new member of the L’Oreal family… Bring me home, and I will be with you tonight. Try me, enjoy our moment tonight.”

“Participants who blamed themselves for being socially excluded showed greater preference for the partner brand, whereas participants who blamed others for being socially excluded exhibited more favourable attitude towards the fling brand,” the study said. “In contrast, socially included participants’ preference for the partner brand and fling brand did not differ whether they attributed the reason to self or others.”

The research found, however, that the attraction of anthropomorphised brands tended to evaporate when participants had the opportunity, before expressing a preference, to affiliate with other people following exclusion – suggesting that people whose need for social affiliation is restored no longer needed anthropomorphised brands to satisfy their social needs.