Consumers like to talk about the brands in their lives. Brands may be connected to their personal history or to a narrative which describes their current lifestyle; people can tell others about a variety of brand experiences they have had, for better or worse. Consumers use likewise word-of-mouth information they receive from friends and relatives, but not only from them. They refer to product reviews, user-generated blogs, as well as stories, opinions and suggestions conveyed in forums of digital social networks from people they may not know so well but consider convincing or trustworthy. The proliferation of user-generated content through Web 2.0 and mobile applications did a great deal to facilitate the spread of word-of-mouth (WOM) and increase consumer reliance on this type of information. However, it does not preclude the still dominant transfer of brand-related WOM offline between people more closely connected in face-to-face meetings and phone conversations.
But brands do not exert WOM to the same extent. Some brands get more of such informal publicity than others. The question thence becomes: What characteristics of a brand make it more interesting, important or relevant to consumers to talk about with friends, family and others? In such discourse consumers could be mainly in the role of providers or receivers of information, and they may share personal experiences, viewpoints, and recommendations, or conversely warnings, regarding any brand.
Researchers Lovett, Peres, and Shachar (2013) took the challenge of investigating the relations of brand characteristics to stimulation of WOM shared among consumers, and they offer some interesting insights, especially on the differences between offline and online channels. At start, it should be clarified that drivers for engaging in WOM are originated in the consumers for satisfying their personal needs; the brand characteristics may be seen as operational instruments that link with the drivers that stimulate brand-related WOM. The researchers identify three main drivers in their guiding theoretical framework:
- Social driver — Concerned with a need of consumers to express themselves to others, showing their uniqueness, for self-enhancement, and out of desire to socialize with others;
- Emotional driver — Associated with excitement and pleasure of satisfaction (emotional sharing);
- Functional driver — Related to the need to obtain information and the tendency to provide information to others, moderated by aspects such as complexity and knowledge.
The researchers collated information on over six hundred US national brands of products and services as well as corporate and retailer names (covering the period of 2008-2010). The brands spanned across 16 broad product categories (e.g., beverages, children’s’ products, clothing, department stores, cars, media and entertainment).
Data sources on brand characteristics included a consumer survey in the US (primary source) and several datasets of proprietary research programmes (secondary sources), the major of them is the Young and Rubicam Brand Asset Valuator (characteristics corresponding to brand equity “pillars”: Differentiation, Relevance, Esteem, and Knowledge).
The level of WOM generated about a brand (operated as count of mentions of a brand) was modelled and analysed separately in offline conversations and online settings or forums. Data of brand mentions in face-to-face and in phone conversations were obtained from the TalkTrack project of Keller and Fay (a diary-based survey) whereas data on online WOM were adopted from the Nielsen McKinsey Incite tool (a search engine that can retrieve brand mentions in settings such as discussions groups, blogs and microblogs). [The count of brand mentions was modelled under the assumption that it follows a Negative-Binomial distribution.]
We will take here a quick look at results and insights from the research that I find the more revealing and interesting, with an emphasis on distinctions between offline and online channels:
The Social Driver — A brand that is better differentiated from competitors can make an easier and more effective vehicle for a consumer to express his or her own uniqueness to others. Greater brand differentiation contributes to more brand mentions offline and online. Yet, the positive effect on WOM online is stronger. There could be greater motivation for consumers to utilise brands for highlighting their uniqueness when communicating online because they can address much larger audiences than offline, and a reference to the relevant brand can efficiently deliver the message, particularly when cues of visual appearance or sound cannot be used. Brand differentiation is a newly studied characteristic in relation to WOM in this research project.
The volume of brand WOM also increases with higher perceived quality of the brand’s products, and is larger for more prestigious, premium brands. Associating with brands of higher quality products (represented by Esteem) can serve to demonstrate the consumer’s expertise in a category — it has a positive effect on WOM offline and online, but the effect online is twice as large. A premium brand characterization, that reflects a higher social status, has a significant effect only in an online channel. Enhancing one’s self-image through expertise or social status, as with highlighting personal uniqueness, is possibly felt more needed by consumers in the less intimate interactions that take place online with people whom they are less familiar with than those they interact with face-to-face or on the phone. A consumer may have more to “prove” to or impress “friends” who are known primarily and even solely as members in his or her virtual social network.
The Emotional Driver — Being excited about a brand seems as a very plausible motive to arouse consumers to talk about it. Lovett and his colleagues indicate that excitement, a brand personality trait, has not been studied yet in the context of WOM. As expected, brands that evoke more excitement lead consumers to engage more in WOM about the brand, both offline and online. While the effects of excitement are similar between the channels, there is a distinction between them, as addressed below, with respect to the emotional driver in general.
The researchers expected that a higher level of WOM would be generated when satisfaction with a brand is very high or very low. Their model results showed, however, that only very low satisfaction yields a peak in WOM, and that as satisfaction rises the level of WOM drops (i.e., a relationship described by a monotonic descending concave curve). The finding that very low satisfaction induces consumers to talk (critically) more about a brand is frequently supported in other studies.
The proposition about the effect of very high satisfaction may have not been supported, according to the researchers, because it has confounded with the effects of esteem and excitement included in their model and not in previous research. But one cannot ignore that the dataset included satisfaction scores for just a third of the brands analysed, as reported, and scores for the remaining 2/3 of brands with missing data were imputed based on the distribution of the available scores. Consequently, it is hard to conclude based on the evidence whether the effect of high satisfaction indeed exists.
The Functional Driver — This driver has two dimensions: obtaining information and providing information through WOM. Consumers often require assistance when learning complex product information (e.g., prior to purchase) or dealing with complex technical details and instructions (e.g., for correct product utilisation). Complexity matters primarily to those who wish to obtain information. This research reveals that greater complexity is related to more brand mentions only in offline conversations. That is, more immediate, direct and intimate interactions offline between consumers are adopted as more suitable for discussing together and clarifying information that is complex and more difficult to comprehend about products. It may be added that such conversations are also more likely to be held between consumers who know each other better, and that allows for a better flow of interaction. Less complex information can be obtained from online forums. Online conversations, as the authors argue, tend to be asynchronous, and entail longer delays in responding to questions that may hinder clarification of confusing matters and information exchange. Complexity is another characteristic included in this study yet not in previous research in the context of WOM.
Interestingly, consumers also engage more in WOM on younger (i.e., newer) brands when communicating offline but not online — brands possibly perceived as innovative, intriguing, exciting or still ambiguous appear also to be more appropriate to talk about in person.
From the perspective of those who provide information, producing and disseminating WOM on brands would depend on how knowledgable consumers feel they are on the subject. The results confirm that brands that are perceived to be more familiar to consumers and better known are more likely to be talked about, similarly offline and online.
The researchers further extracted and compared the relative importance of each main driver between the two settings of offline and online channels. The social driver is the most important stimulant of online WOM followed by the functional and lastly the emotional driver. In contrast, in offline conversations the emotional driver is the most important, followed by the functional driver, and relatively the least important driver is social. Notably, while the emotional driver has a positive effect in both types of channels, it is more prominent in driving brand mentions in conversations offline. These differences exemplify the difference in nature between offline and online interactions — offline interactions are more intimate and open between people, more accommodating to share excitement and satisfaction, whereas online interactions are less personal, tend to promote “broadcasting” information to many people and social signalling with verbal cues.
The different nature of offline and online channels may also be evident in an almost complete separation between lists of leading brands (top 1o) in number of their brand mentions between those two settings: Offline we find Coca-Cola, Verizon, Pepsi, Wal-Mart, Ford, AT&T, McDonald’s, Dell Computers, Sony, and Chevrolet. Online, on the other hand, arrived on top the brands of Google, Facebook, iPhone, YouTube, Ebay, Ford, Yahoo, Disney, and Audi. Only Ford is on both lists. The contrast between “new” and “old” or “physical” and “virtual” brands speaks for itself.
The models furthermore demonstrate the positive role of brand equity in encouraging consumers to talk more about a brand. Stronger brands — more encompassing in their areas of activity and influencing many more people — command more conversation (e.g., information exchange and sharing opinions). First, we may recognize an implicit effect of brand equity on WOM through factors represented in the models such as perceived quality, differentiation, knowledge, and visibility that contribute to enhancing the equity of a brand. Second, nonetheless, the researchers included in their two models a control variable of brand equity, represented as the inclusion of brands in the list of 100 top brands constructed by Interbrand. It is thereby confirmed that brands on this list enjoy higher WOM. One should keep in mind, however, that being more frequently the subject of conversation, offline or online, is evidence of greater importance and relevance of a brand, and in turn may increase its equity further, when WOM is positive, but may also decrease its equity when the WOM is negative.
The authors acknowledge some limits of their research. In particular: (1) The brands included are the most talked about in the US (i.e., covering reduced variation in level of WOM over brands); (2) The models refer to “offline” and “online” in wholesome as types of channels — more research is needed to investigate effects on WOM in separate online spaces like the blogosphere and social media networks; (3) Since the units of information are brands rather than individual consumers, the ability to describe and explain the processes in which consumers exchange, produce or obtain WOM information on brands is impaired, inviting more research in this respect.
Marketing communication managers may use the results (effect estimates) and insights from these models of WOM to identify characteristics of brands in their responsibility that can be expected to yield more WOM and learn of gaps between actual and expected levels of WOM when planning where and how to invest their effort for evoking more WOM on their brands. However, it is most important for marketers, as Lovett, Peres, and Shachar stress in their article, to keep offline and online channels distinguished and plan their measures for each environment separately — what may work well in an online environment can prove ineffective offline, and vice versa. In each environment it is necessary to emphasise different aspects and goals and take appropriate measures.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
On Brands and Word-of-Mouth; Mitchell Lovett, Renana Peres, & Ron Shachar, 2013; Journal of Marketing Research, 50 (August), pp. 427-444.
The authors won a grand award for their research project in a joint-competition of the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative and the Marketing Science Institute.