The concept of brand attachment has become a frequent, almost integral component of attitudinal models of brand equity in commercial studies since the late 1990s. It has been introduced to represent an emotional bond that is expected to build between a brand and consumers to allow for their sustainable loyalty to the brand. Perceived quality and other assessments of a rational nature about branded products and services are generally not regarded as sufficient to connect a consumer with a brand. In addition, brand attachment is meant to represent a disposition towards a brand that is more solid and enduring regarding consumer-brand relations than brand attitude. However, what signifies and distinguishes that construct has not been properly and agreeably defined. In a recent seminal article (2010), Park and MacInnis of the University of Southern California and their colleagues (*) offer an approach to fill this caveat coherently. The researchers define the construct of brand attachment, test and demonstrate how it differs from brand attitude strength.
We may find a spectrum of relationships between consumers and brands at different levels of depth and strength. What creates, for example, the deep attraction, to an extent of passion, of consumers to brands like Nike or Apple? On the contrary, the brand Nokia of mobile phones has for the past few years lost its favour with consumers. Last month it was revealed that Microsoft, which had acquired the mobile division from the Finnish mother company, intends to abolish the Nokia brand name but retain the “Lumia” name for new models of smart-mobile devices (e.g., phones, tablets, and whatever comes next); if indeed brand attachment by consumers to Nokia has diminished, no one would shed a tear. Coca Cola almost ruined its brand equity in 1985 due to its New Coke ordeal — apparently consumers were insistent on their attachment to the brand and what it represented to them to force the company to step back and save the brand. Brand attachment captures the affective linkage that is created between a brand and its customers.
A brand equity model may start from awareness of and basic familiarity with the brand of interest at its ground. On top of which should come associations of product attributes and functional benefits (tangible product assets) next to “softer” associations of feelings or personality traits assigned to the brand (intangible assets). After accounting for these building blocs, a bridge of attachment can be erected between the consumers and the brand, leading to commitment (a manifest of attitudinal loyalty). Several facets can be proposed based on pervious academic and applied research in the field to represent brand attachment: (a) respect for the brand and its leadership; (b) personal identification with the brand; (c) favourability of brand legacy and values; and possibly also (d) appreciation of how the brand treats its customers.
Park and MacInnis et al. develop a scale of brand attachment that formally specifies aspects of brand-self connection — it emphasises identification of the consumer with the brand; yet to this factor they add a second factor of brand prominence in memory. Thus, they suggest a scale constructed from two factors; they show that treating the scale as a composition of the two components has better validity than a single-unified scale. Furthermore, the authors demonstrate the effect of brand attachment on behavioural intentions as well as actual behaviour (self-reported and as registered in customer database records). They cover a range of activities or actions that differ in their level of difficulty. It is shown that brand attachment is able to predict the intention to perform the more difficult types of behaviour that brand attitude strength cannot.
Brand attitude strength is measured by the valence of an attitude (positive-negative) weighted by the confidence with which the consumer holds that attitude. However, research repeatedly has shown that attitudes get to impact behaviour when the valence is more extreme in either direction and confidence is strong. Attitudes do have an affective basis but it is generally sublime and concerned primarily with valence. That is, brand attitude alone does not contain a scope of emotions people may exhibit; it is very limited in its emotional capacity. Brand attachment, on the other hand, is more emotionally charged and can tell a better story about the relation of the consumer to the brand. Park and MacInnis et al. conceptually define brand attachment as “the strength of the bond connecting the brand with the self” (p. 2). This bond materializes when it is supported by a rich and accessible network of positive thoughts and feelings about the brand in the consumer’s memory. A brand-self connection ascribes to the extent to which a consumer identifies with a brand as if they could merge together. In other words, the self (concept) of the consumer is extended so as to absorb the brand and make it part of his or her own self (image or goals). While the representation is cognitive, the researchers note, the brand-self linkage is inherently emotional. Brand prominence indicates in addition the ease and frequency with which thoughts and feelings (underlying the connection) are brought to the consumer’s mind. The brand-self connection can “come to life” more readily when brand prominence is greater, hence the consumer experiences a stronger brand attachment.
The researchers first constructed a scale with five items for each of the two components. However, they sought to make the scale more parsimonious and practical to implement, and proposed a reduced scale of two items for brand-self connection and two items for brand prominence. Looking at the factor loadings suggests that it would be justified to keep four items for the first component and three items for the second. But in the researchers’ judgement parsimony should win over. For example, the item “feel emotionally bonded” could be discarded in favour of “feel personally connected”.
In their analyses, Park and MacInnis and their colleagues confirm that brand attachment and brand attitude strength are related yet empirically distinct constructs — while correlation between them is moderate-high they cannot be confounded. This supports the convergent and discriminant validity of brand attachment. The authors provide further support for the validity of attachment by showing an interesting relation to separation distress, a negative emotional state that may occur when losing a relationship with an entity people felt close to (e.g., feelings of depression, anxiety and loss of self). Brand-self connection and prominence each independently “contribute to the prediction of separation distress as indicators of brand attachment” (p. 8). The research additionally substantiates that brand attachment is distinct from attitude strength, the former being more strongly associated with separation distress.
Eventually, marketers would want to know how brand attachment is linked to behaviour. Three categories of difficulty are distinguished: (1) Among the most difficult forms of behaviour are buying always the new model of brand X, waiting to buy brand X versus an alternative brand, and spending money, time and energy to promote brand X (e.g., in pages and forums of social media and in blogs). (2) Moderately difficult forms of behaviour include paying a price premium for brand X and defending it when others speak bad of it. (3) The least difficult modes of behaviour include, for example, recommending brand X to others and buying the brand for others. Notably, recommending a brand to relatives or friends involves a certain personal risk for the endorser because one puts his or her own reputation or credibility on-line by suggesting to others to buy and use the particular brand. Yet, this alone is not considered hereby as a major cause of difficulty vis-á-vis the investment of time, money or energy to promote the brand (e.g., tell a story in a blog post, add photos).
With respect to intention to behave in ways that favour a brand (reflecting brand commitment) it is found that brand attachment predicts the intention to engage in behaviours regarded as the most difficult remarkably better than brand attitude strength. Brand attachment also better predicts intention to behave in moderately difficult ways but the difference from attitude strength, although also statistically significant, is rather small. There is no significant difference between attachment and attitude strength in predicting intention of performing the least difficult behaviours — they do equally well. These findings bolster the importance of addressing brand attachment as a driver of brand commitment, particularly via more demanding modes of behaviour.
An additional test suggests that brand prominence is less essential than the brand-self connection component in predicting intentions. (Intentions were tested with respect to Nike.)
In a different set of analyses of actual behaviour (banking-investments), the researchers found furthermore that brand attachment is a better predictor of past purchases than brand attitude strength. In this case, however, brand attachment represented by both brand-self connection and brand prominence is predicting behaviour better than the former alone. That is, with regard to actual behaviour, brand prominence is an essential component.
Many brand owners would find utility in applying this scale of brand attachment (in a full or reduced form): from food (e.g., Nestlé) or toys (e.g., Lego) to banking (e.g., Royal Bank of Scotland) or carmakers (e.g., Peugeot). Take for instance Microsoft that now holds four brand names they may apply for marketing mobile devices: their own corporate name, Surface, Nokia or Lumia. Microsoft could use the aid of such a scale to decide which brand proves as better ground to build upon and which name is better eliminated. It may be a major factor in the contest of brand equity for mobile-smart devices of Microsoft versus Apple, Samsung Electronics, and Lenovo (Motorola).
Although the brand strength construct may capture a brand’s mind share of a consumer, attachment is uniquely positioned to capture both heart and mind share (p. 14).
The scale of brand attachment constructed by Park and MacInnis and their colleagues emphasises consumer identification with a brand, representing an emotional connection, and actualised through its prominence in memory. It does not cover other possible sources of attachment, but the approach taken is focused, concrete and well-substantiated. The researchers provide a valid scale for practitioners in brand management and research for measuring brand attachment, stand-alone or as part of a brand equity model.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
(*) Brand Attachment and Brand Attitude Strength: Conceptual and Empirical Differentiation of Two Critical Brand Equity Drivers; C. Whan Park, Deborah J. MacInnis, Joseph Priester, Andreas B. Eisingerich, & Dawn Iacobucci, 2010; Journal of Marketing, 74 (November), pp. 1-17.