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The Psychology Behind the Brands We Love


The reasons we love a certain brand of sneakers probably has more to do with our brains than our feet.

As consumers, we like to think we favor a brand because of objective factors, such as product quality or price. But insights from psychology, the study of the human mind and behavior, suggest that our feelings and identities may have a greater influence on which brands we choose.

Three concepts from psychology may explain what makes us love brands: emotional decision-making, identity, and social identity. Marketers can use these principles to better understand what motivates their customers and get the most out of their brand management and marketing efforts.

Emotions, at the Heart of Brand Choices

You might think you chose your brand of toothpaste because it’s the best at preventing cavities or because it’s the best value. But even if you didn’t realize it, emotions probably factored into your decision.


Evidence suggests that emotions may influence our behavior as consumers more than we’d like to admit. According to Peter Noel Murray, a consumer psychologist in New York, fMRIs show that consumers evaluate brands mostly based on emotions rather than information or facts about the brand.

Businesses understand that consumers are driven by emotions. From the supermarket strategy of placing produce and flowers at the front of the store to generate a feeling of “freshness” to clothing retailers that play music that makes shoppers feel like they’re at a hip nightclub (this actually makes shoppers move faster, without reducing sales), examples of businesses harnessing the power of emotion to sell abound.

But when it comes to branding, businesses often over-emphasize the facts, focusing on a product’s new features or superior benefits. However, given how much of decision-making is emotional, focusing on feelings may be a better strategy for brands.


I Am What I Buy: How Brands Form Identity

In 2006, Apple launched its “Get a Mac” campaign. The campaign featured a series of commercials that started out with a young, hip guy in a hoodie introducing himself by saying “Hi, I’m a Mac.” A stodgy, older man wearing a blazer and glasses portrayed another computer brand. The campaign implied that the computer you use signifies the kind of person you are, and of course you want to be young and cool, like a Mac.

The “Get a Mac” campaign is an example of the use of identity in branding. Identity is an important psychological and social concept that relates to how we view and define ourselves and others. We use many elements of our lives, from physical characteristics (“I’m short”) to political views (“I’m liberal”) to construct our identities.

Consumer psychology suggests that consumers construct their identities and present themselves to others through the brands they choose.  For example, you may love a certain brand of hybrid cars because you see yourself as environmentally conscious, or because you want other people to view you that way.

Researchers Jennifer Edson Escalas and James R. Bettman found that college students tended to have positive associations with brands that reflected images that were consistent with their own identity, such as “conservative,” “hippy,” or “athletic.”

Identity may explain why many of the best-loved brands communicate personality traits that consumers identify with or wish to emulate, such as being young, tech-savvy, wealthy, or sexy. If your brand doesn’t resonate with your customer’s real or desired identity, it’s unlikely your brand will inspire love.


The In-Crowd’s Brand

If you’ve ever felt a connection to people who use the same kind of smartphone or ride the same brand of motorcycle as you do, you’ve experienced social identity in branding.

Social identity, a component of personal identity, involves defining ourselves based on membership in certain social groups. Individuals might derive social identity from belonging to a fraternity, living in a particular neighborhood, or being a member of a professional organization. Social identity is relevant to brands because of the way social groups influence individuals’ choices and preferences.

A recent study on solar panel installation demonstrates how the communities we live in can affect our purchasing decisions. Solar panels are expensive to install, so you might assume that only people who see themselves as wealthy or environmentally conscious might install them. But researchers discovered that the most predictive factor in determining where solar panels were installed wasn’t wealth or identifying with liberal political values, but whether someone’s neighbors had installed solar panels. A single solar panel installation increased the average number of solar panel installations within a mile by a factor of 0.44, or almost half.

Many advertising campaigns rely on social identity, suggesting that other members of the target customer’s social group – health-conscious mothers, for example – use a product. Some brands have created social networks exclusively for their customers, essentially forming a social group around their products. Consumers may be more likely to adopt a brand if their social group does, too.


Use Psychology to Connect with Customers

Ultimately, most of our brand choices are based on how we feel, how we see ourselves, and our relationships with the people around us, rather than the superiority of a company’s products or services. Marketers who focus on their customers’ emotions and identities, instead of their product’s unique features, have a better chance of building brands that inspire love.

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