Anthropomorphic Branding

Prof. Hyokjin Kwak

Stable Human Traits in Branding

The concept of anthropomorphization has been explored from various perspectives, including a religious context, an application to pets, human perceptions of gadgets, and human-computer interactions. Imbuing nonhuman entities with humanlike intentions, motivations, characteristics, conscious will, soul, spirit, and emotions is the essence of anthropomorphism. Brand anthropomorphism refers to a brand positioning strategy of using humanlike visual and verbal elements to enhance consumer attributions of human characteristics to a brand. Marketers frequently use anthropomorphic imagery, metaphorically represent a product as exhibiting human actions, or adopt first person communications to foster a brand's meaning as humanlike. Overall, prior research has largely focused on the positive sides of brand anthropomorphization.

However, from a theoretical perspective, the awareness of human intentions that are stable triggers the perception of intentional action, as well as responsibility for this action. As such, an anthropomorphic positioning of a brand can have negative repercussions if the brand is perceived as responsible for its wrongdoings. Given the potential negative repercussions of brand anthropomorphization in these instances, understanding whether humanizing a brand can backfire when product/service failure occurs and which factors may facilitate or inhibit these negative sides of brand anthropomorphization is critical. In the marketplace, product wrongdoings and failures are pervasive. Brands positioned with anthropomorphic features can receive significantly more negative publicity caused by their product wrongdoings. For example, in 2006, M&M-branded Menorahs were recalled because of a potential fire hazard. Later, in 2008, M&M received additional negative publicity when traces of melamine, a poisonous substance, were found in M&M candies. Do consumers respond to product wrongdoings and failures less favorably when a brand is humanized? This has been the theoretical lens of my research on brand anthropomorphism in the past 13 years. Here, some of my major publications on brand anthropomorphism are discussed.

In case of Product Wrongdoings

As mentioned, the brand relationship literature shows that the humanizing of brands and products generates more favorable consumer attitudes and thus enhances brand performance. However, expectations of stable dispositions can have negative consequences in light of product wrongdoings because consumers are more likely to hold anthropomorphized brands responsible and to expect continued negative future behaviors. Thus, we propose negative downstream consequences of brand humanization-that is, the anthropomorphization of a brand can negatively affect consumers' brand evaluations when the brand faces negative publicity caused by product wrongdoings. We find that consumers who believe in personality stability (i.e., entity theorists) view anthropomorphized brands that undergo negative publicity less favorably than non-anthropomorphized brands. In contrast, consumers who advocate personality malleability (i.e., incremental theorists) are less likely to devalue an anthropomorphized brand from a single instance of negative publicity. Finally, we explore three firm response strategies (i.e., denial, apology, and compensation) that can affect the evaluations of anthropomorphized brands between consumers with different implicit theory perspectives. We find that entity theorists have more difficulty in combating the adverse effects of brand anthropomorphization than incremental theorists. Furthermore, we demonstrate that compensation (vs. denial or apology) is the only effective response among entity theorists.

In case of Price Wrongdoings

This research shows that brand anthropomorphization increases the perceived unfairness of price increases and the perceived fairness of price decreases. First, analyzing a household panel data set, we demonstrate the real-world consequences of brand humanization on consumers' price sensitivity. Second, building on the theoretical premise that fairness judgments depend on consumer focus on the self versus others, we find that brand humanization enhances perceived unfairness of price increases for agency-oriented consumers, who tend to maximize their own self-interests. However, for communion-oriented consumers, who generally consider the needs of others, brand humanization increases perceived fairness of both price increases and decreases. Furthermore, as consumers’ focus on the self versus others also depends upon relationship goals, the nature of consumer–brand relationships interacts with agency–communion orientation to influence the effect of brand humanization on perceived price fairness. For example, exchange relationship norms reduce the power of brand anthropomorphization to enhance perceived fairness of price changes for communion-oriented consumers. In contrast, the communal nature of these relationships makes both agency- and communion-oriented consumers infer greater positive intent from a humanized (vs. non-humanized) brand, thus leading to a more positive effect of brand humanization on price fairness for price.

In case of Service Wrongdoings

This research investigates the interplay between brand anthropomorphism and self-construal on evaluations of distributive and procedural justice. We show that consumers with independent self-construal, who value equitable exchanges in their relationships with others, react more negatively to instances of distributive injustice when a brand is anthropomorphized (vs. non-anthropomorphized). In contrast, we find that consumers with interdependent self-construal, who focus on the needs of others, react less negatively to situations of distributive injustice when a brand is anthropomorphized (vs. non-anthropomorphized). However, because fair procedures signal acceptance by others, we show that interdependents evaluate procedural injustice particularly negatively in the instances of brand anthropomorphism. We offer in-depth insights into the interplay between brand anthropomorphism and self-construal in situations where distributive and procedural types of justice interact with each other. Finally, this research provides critical managerial evidence showing that marketers can strategically embed cues within their marketing communications that activate either an independent or an interdependent self-construal in order to manage consumer reactions to perceived marketplace injustice when a brand is anthropomorphized (vs. non-anthropomorphized).

In case of Relationship Wrongdoings

This research identifies a key brand anthropomorphization strategy - positioning a brand as either oriented to interact with consumers or not. Managers generally rely on this brand-interaction strategy to enhance consumer-brand engagement regardless of the social context. However, given that consumers often experience brands in a social context, this research demonstrates that social crowdedness moderates the positive impact of interaction-oriented anthropomorphized brands on consumer brand preferences. Specifically, we show that consumers' inferences of an anthropomorphized brand’s intentionality to interact with them in a socially crowded context trigger greater social withdrawal, thereby resulting in lower preferences for the brand. We further demonstrate that the core negative effect of social crowdedness is contingent on the type of crowding (goal-related vs. goal-unrelated). In particular, a goal-related crowding decreases social withdrawal reactions, which, in turn, leads to greater preferences for interaction-oriented anthropomorphized brands compared to brands with other positioning strategies. In contrast, the effect of social crowdedness on consumer preferences for interaction-oriented anthropomorphized brands remains negative in goal-unrelated crowded settings.

About The Author

Prof. Hyokjin Kwak

Prof. Hyokjin Kwak

Ph.D., Marketing, Terry College, The University of Georgia, 2001
M.A. Advertising, Grady College, The University of Georgia, 1999

Hyokjin Kwak is Professor of Marketing at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. Prior to joining IIMA, he was Professor of Marketing (tenured) at the LeBow College of Business, Drexel University for 20 years, holding Dean's Research Fellow, Distinguished Teaching Fellow, and the Marketing Ph.D. coordinator. His Ph.D. in Marketing (Terry College) and M.A. in Advertising (Grady College) were both earned at The University of Georgia. He is International Research Fellow at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. He has been a Visiting faculty at several institutions including the University of Amsterdam, the University of East Anglia, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) Business School, and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (Seoul campus) in South Korea.

Hyokjin's primary research interests include strategic branding, advertising effects, and AI (machine/deep learning, NLP) which have been appeared in major marketing journals including the Journal of Marketing, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, International Journal of Research in Marketing, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Media Psychology, Journal of Advertising, International Journal of Advertising, and Journal of Advertising Research among others. He serves as Associate Editor for the International Journal of Advertising and on ERB at the International Journal of Research in Marketing, Journal of Advertising, and Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science. His Ph.D. students have won nation-wide research awards for their dissertations (e.g., Mary Kay Dissertation Competition by Academy of Marketing Science) in the US.