How do you feel about that purchase?
Written by C. Denise Johnson
The child is dressed in shorts and a simple shirt. Shoeless, he walks through brown fields to get to the village store. The shop’s walls, shelves, and corners are filled with cans, boxes, fruits, and other goods. The child, about 6 years old, enters and asks for a brand-name soap—he insists on this brand.
Nearby, an adult is intrigued by the exchange. She notices the boy’s attachment to the brand name; she has witnessed this before. Surprisingly, brand loyalty is widespread in this remote village in northern India, a place connected to the nearest town only by a dirt road. Few here have electricity, and there is only one television in the entire community. The village economy depends on agricultural products, which local farmers carry in creaking bullock carts to sell in neighboring towns. When they return, their carts are laden with brand-name products.
A newly minted MBA, Vanitha Swaminathan, was the observant adult in the village store. “Here was a child who could barely read or write, but he knew the brand name of a soap marketed by a multinational company,” she recalls. At the time, she was working as a marketing manager at a consumer goods conglomerate. She was in the village to explore how to strengthen distribution systems to more effectively supply rural areas. She was struck by the power of commercial brands to reach so deeply across cultures, class, and life situations to influence purchasing decisions.
Swaminathan, who is today a marketing professor in Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, says the encounter with the young boy shaped her business interests and her research, influencing her to pursue the links between shopping habits, individual values, upbringing, and self-perception.
“In fast-growing economies like China and India, the middle class is increasingly status-conscious and brand-conscious,” says Swaminathan. “This increased focus on brand names—and global brand names, in particular—symbolizes consumers’ aspirations to become integrated with the global scene.”
At the Katz School, Swaminathan’s research explores how companies build relationships with consumers through brands. Her expertise is in branding strategy and the role of marketing strategies in creating value for a firm and its shareholders. Her work examines the fascinating world of consumer behavior and attitudes in response to branding and marketing strategies.
Marketing strategies have moved beyond simply trying to persuade consumers to purchase goods. Today, companies also try to increase consumers’ attachment to brands. And that attachment reflects a complex set of factors.
A few years ago, Swaminathan began working with Pitt PhD student Karen Stilley and colleague Rohini Ahluwalia of the University of Minnesota’s management school. Their research results were published last spring in the Journal of Consumer Research in an article titled “When Brand Personality Matters: The Moderating Role of Attachment Styles.” The research built upon previous work by others which showed that brand personality—qualities associated with human traits like sincerity or excitement—can be a vehicle of consumer self-expression, instrumental in a consumer’s expressions of actual self, ideal self, or aspects of self.
Swaminathan and her research colleagues conducted a series of three survey-driven studies, each with 150 to 200 student participants. The research examined how consumers “attach” to various brand styles and how that attachment—which can offer social or emotional security—may be linked to a brand personality. For instance, some young adults taking the study viewed Nike shoes and Pepsi as exciting—brands that exude qualities such as individuality, youthfulness, and vitality. Other study participants associated Gap jeans, Coca-Cola, and Campbell’s soups as sincere brands that exude warmth and caring.
The issues, though, are more complex. Consumers become attached to brands through a mix of factors involving the human psyche. Some individuals, explains Swaminathan, feel they are unworthy of love and fear rejection. For them, brand attachment translates into an emotional connection to material possessions. Beyond that, brand personality acquires heightened meaning when consumers interact with others in a social context. Then, it further signifies an external image that denotes a particular station in life, either attained or aspired to.
Swaminathan’s research integrates consumer habits with attachment theory, a principle that originated in social psychology and is now used to help describe an individual’s interpersonal relationship style.
“Those who have a low view of self and are afraid of rejection, but would like to have lasting relationships, are much more likely to choose sincere brands,” she says. “However, fearful individuals who have a low view of self and fear rejection, but who also have shallow and fleeting relationships, are much more attracted to exciting brands like Pepsi and Nike.”
Here, the study revealed something unexpected: Brand personality might hold the key to influencing purchases by these excitement-seeking consumers, a finding that was not obvious in previous consumer research.
The study helps us understand that consumers imbue material possessions and brands in particular with meaning; that brands are intimately connected with our hopes, feelings, desires, and relational aspirations, says Swaminathan. “Brands are bridges that help us connect to significant others.”
So, for the young boy walking through dun-colored fields in India to shop at a small store, the purchase of a brand-name soap connects him to something much larger and more complex. Already, he’s part of the global village.