We’ve all done it: used the L-word in reference to a certain favorite brand. The common assumption is when we say "I love Coke" (or whatever product we fancy), we’re using love as a lazy stand-in for whatever true, presumably lesser emotion we’re feeling—"contributing to the trivialization of the word," as Don Draper once vented. But what if consumers who say they love a brand actually mean it with the same emotional intensity they do when referring to a beloved person?
It’s a "vital question" that a research trio from Bergische University Wuppertal in Germany, led by marketing scholar Tobias Langner, recently tried to answer. True to Don’s instinct, Langner and colleagues concluded by way of several measures that interpersonal love is far more intense than brand love. No big surprise there, but the work did lead to an unexpected discovery: brands might not pack the emotional punch of a loved one, but they do produce similar feelings to someone we like.
"The emotionality evoked by loved brands is just as intense as that evoked by a close friend," report Langner and company in the journal Psychology and Marketing. "Moreover, consumers experience emotions in a brand love relation that are even more positive than those evoked in close, interpersonal liking relationships."
The researchers first approached the question with structured interviews of 60 study participants about brands and people they loved and liked. They noticed some similarities in the way participants discussed humans and items: those that were loved felt indispensable, triggered caretaking instincts, and enhanced a moment or experience. But beloved brands were described in rational, highly reciprocal terms—the good had to give something back to the consumer—whereas interpersonal love could be selfless and emotionally one-sided.
Both brands and people did produce positive emotions, but even the strongest brand love didn’t meet the extremes of person love. When independent coders analyzed the interviews for emotional statements, they found emotions present in every single accounts of an interpersonal love relationship. The same was only true for 90% of "close friend" relations, and 83% of "brand love" relations. (The figure was 67% for brands we merely like.)
"Compared with their motivations for interpersonal love, consumers are more driven by rational benefits when they love a brand," write Langner et al. "Although interpersonal relations might be benefit-driven too, the anticipated benefits in interpersonal relations tend to be emotional in nature."
The problem with relying on interviews about love is that, almost by nature, it’s a difficult emotion to articulate. So as a follow-up study, the researchers went straight to the feelings themselves. They recruited 20 test participants in committed relationships and showed them a series of pictures: the romantic partner, a good friend, a brand they claimed to love, and a similar product they just liked. The researchers captured skin arousal measures via electrodes during the viewing, and later performed an emotional assessment designed to gauge intensity and positivity.
The physiological tests confirmed what the interviews had suggested. When participants saw a picture of a loved person, they felt significantly more intense emotions than when they saw their fave brand, as indicated by skin arousal and emotional assessment. Loved ones made us all tingly; loved things, a little less so. "Thus … interpersonal (romantic) love and brand love constitute different emotions," they conclude.
But the surprise came when the researchers compared responses to beloved brands with those of close friends. They found no measurable difference in terms of skin arousal, nor in terms of emotional intensity. And on the positivity assessment, the loved brand actually produced warmer vibes than a good pal did. "Thus," they write, "the assumption that close interpersonal relations generally evoked more positive emotions than brand relations was not confirmed." (As expected, emotional arousal, intensity, and positivity for a loved brand were all greater than for a liked brand.)
The researchers consider some of their results preliminary. Both studies, but especially the bodily test, had fairly small sample sizes. Actual contact with people or brands might have elicited different physiological responses than the pictures did. And the terms like and love remain not only relative from person to person but variable within an individual.
But it’s probably wise to think about what message you’re sending a spouse or romantic partner next time you say you literally love a brand. Not to mention your best friends.