It is usually not a pleasant feeling to be alone in a scary place or event — think of being stuck in a dark elevator or being involved in a car accident. People commonly seek to be with someone for comfort and company. But the companion does not always have to be another person. A research by Dunn and Hoegg (2014) provides corroboration that the need to share fear matters to humans while the identity of the companion, whether a person or an object, is less critical. More specifically, sharing fear with a product from an unfamiliar brand may facilitate a quick emotional attachment with that brand without requiring to build a relationship over a lengthy period of time (1).
Fear is evoked by the presence or anticipation of a danger or threat. Feeling fear may be triggered by an unfamiliar event to which one is unsure how to respond (uncertainty) or an unexpected event at a specific moment (surprise); experiencing fear is furthermore likely when the event encountered is both unfamiliar and unexpected. It is important to note, nonetheless, that not every encounter with an unfamiliar or unexpected event necessarily leads to fear. The Amygdala in the temporal lobe of the brain is the “centre” where fear arises. However, the amygdala like other brain structures is responsible for multiple functions. The amygdala is activated in response to unfamiliarity, unpredictability or ambiguity, but not every instance necessarily means the evocation of fear. For example, tension from facing an unfamiliar problem that one is at loss how to solve may not result in fear. Additionally, fear as well as other states of emotion are the outcome of appraisal of physical feelings (e.g., faster heartbeats, startle, warmth), considering the conditions in which they were triggered; it is a cognitive interpretation of their meaning (“why do I feel that way?”). Activation of other brain structures together with the amygdala may influence whether similar feelings triggered by an unexpected event are interpreted, for instance, as fear, anger, or surprise. The context in which an event occurs can matter a lot for the appraisal of emotions (2).
Dunn and Hoegg emphasise the emotional charge of consumer attachment with a brand versus cognitive underpinnings. Brand attachment has often been conceptualised as the product of a relationship between consumers and the target brand built over time. It should take a longer time to achieve a more solid brand attachment because of cognitive processes for establishing brand connections in memory and stronger favourable brand attitudes. However, this explanation is subject to criticism of missing the important role of emotions in bonding between consumers and a brand which does not necessarily require a long time. By focusing their studies on unfamiliar brands, Dunn and Hoegg intended to show that emotional attachment can emerge much more quickly when the consumers are distressed and are looking for a partner to share their fear with, and that partner or companion can be a brand of a given product.
On the same grounds, the researchers chose a scale of emotional attachment (Thomson, MacInnis and Park, 2005 ) as more appropriate over a scale that combines emotional and cognitive aspects of attachment and gives greater weight to cognitive constructs (Park, MacInnis et al., 2010 ). The emotional scale comprises three dimensions: (a) Affection (affectionate, friendly, loved, peaceful); (b) Passion (passionate, delighted, captivated); (c) Connection (connected, bonded, attached). Nevertheless, in the later research Park and MacInnis with colleagues offer a broader perspective that accounts for two bases of brand attachment: (i) a connection between self-concept and a brand; and (ii) brand prominence in memory.
While ‘brand prominence’ can be regarded as more cognitive-oriented (accessibility of thoughts and feelings in memory), a ‘brand-self connection’ entails the expansion of one’s concept of self to incorporate others, such as brands, within it — and that involves an emotional element. Park and MacInnis et al. emphasise the brand-self connection as the emotional core of their definition of brand attachment, while brand prominence is a facilitator in actualizing the attachment (analyses substantiate that brand attachment is a better predictor than attitudes of intentions to perform more difficult types of behavior reflecting commitment, and the brand-self connection is more essential for driving this behaviour). The three-dimension scale of emotional brand attachment seems very relevant for the research goals of Dunn and Hoegg, even though it is more restricted from a stand-point of the theoretical roots of brand attachment.
The desire to affiliate with others in scaring and upsetting situations is recognised as a mechanism for coping with negative emotions in those situations. Episodes of armed conflict, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters make people get closer to each other, unite and show solidarity. However, the researchers note that the act of affiliation is essential for coping rather than the affiliation target. That is, the literature on affiliation or attachment relates to interpersonal connections as well as attachment to objects (although objects are viewed as substitutes in absence of other persons [pet animals should also be considered]). We can find support for possible attachment to products and their brands in the human tendency to animate or anthropomorphise objects by assigning them traits of living beings, whether animals or humans. Brands may be animated in order to help consumers relate with them more comfortably, making them appear more vivid to them. It is one of the processes that facilitates the development of consumers’ relationships with their brands in use; consumers connect with brands also through the role brands fulfilled in their personal history, heritage and family traditions, and how brands integrate in their preferred lifestyles (5).
Dunn and Hoegg investigate how consumers connect with a brand on occasions of incidental fear. They make a clear distinction between events that may trigger fear (or other emotions) and fear appeals strategically planned in advertising (e.g., in order to induce a particular desired behaviour). Events that incidentally cause fear would be independent and uncontrolled. Additionally, the intensity and range of emotions felt is expected to differ when consumers actively participate in an event and hence experience it directly in contrast to watching TV ads — in direct consumer experiences, emotional feelings are likely to be more intensive and specific. In a model for measuring consumption emotions developed and tested by Richins, fear is characterised as a negative and more active (as opposed to receptive) emotion, next to other emotions such as anger, worry, discontent, sadness and shame (6).
In their experiments, the researchers try to emulate incidental fear by displaying to participants clips from cinema films or TV series’ episodes, and present evidence that manipulations successfully elicited the intended emotions as dominant in response to each video clip. Yet, it remains somewhat ambiguous how real and direct the experience of watching scenes in a film or a TV programme is perceived and felt with regard to the emotions evoked.
The following are more concrete findings from the studies and their insights:
Emotional brand attachment is generated through perception that the brand shares the fear with the consumer — Study 1 confirms that emotional attachment with an unfamiliar brand is generated when a product (juice) by that brand is present and can be consumed during the fear-inducing experience (more than for emotions of sadness, excitement and happiness). But moreover, it is shown that the emotional attachment is mediated (conditioned) by perception of the consumer that the brand shared the fear with him or her.
Humans precede product brands — Sharing fear with a brand contributes to stronger emotional brand attachment, but only if they still have a desire generated by fear to affiliate with others. If conversely that desire is satiated by a perception of the consumers that they are already socially affiliated with other people, the effect on brand attachment is muted.
Note: Participants in Study 2 were asked to perform a search with words related to feelings of affiliation and social connectedness (e.g., included, accepted, involved) to prime affiliation. Given the statements used to measure (non-)affiliation (e.g., “I feel disconnected from the world around me”), it is a little questionable how effective such a priming condition could be (though the authors show it was sufficient). It might have been more tangible to ask participants to think of people dear to them, family and close friends, and write about them.
Balancing negative and positive emotional effects on attitudes — Based on analyses in Study 2 the researchers also suggest that increased positive effect of emotional brand attachment may counterbalance and override a negative influence of ‘affect transfer’ on attitudes due to fear.
Presence of the brand and attention to it are required yet sufficient — Study 3 demonstrates that neither consumption of the product (juice) nor even touching it (the bottle), both forms of physical interaction, are really needed for feeling affiliated and forming emotional attachment — forced consumption in particular does not contribute to stronger perceived sharing or emotional attachment than merely seeing the product when feeling fear, that is making an eye contact and visually attending to the product in search for a companion. (Unexpectedly, in the case of action and excitement, consuming the drink increases emotional attachment.) Study 4 stresses, nevertheless, that the brand must be present during the emotional event for generating increased emotional attachment — having the brand nearby while experiencing the fear is essential for consumers to feel connected with the brand as their sharing partner (tested with a different product, potato chips).
The research paper suffers from a deficit in practice. That is, marketing managers and professionals might be disappointed to discover that it could be most difficult to have any control of those situations of incidental fear and to act on them to their advantage. In order to have any influence on the consumer a company would be required to anticipate an individual event in advance and to find a way to intervene (i.e., make their product present) without being perceived too intrusive or self-interested — two non-negligible challenges. An additional restriction is posed by the relation of the ‘fear effect’ to brands not previously familiar to the consumers.
Let us consider some potential scenarios where brands might benefit and the difficulties that are likely to arise in implementing it:
Undertaking medical treatments or tests — Some treatments can be alarming and frightening on occasion to different patients. A sense of fear is likely to enter already, and perhaps especially, while waiting. It is a opportunity for introducing the brand-companion in the waiting hall; even more so given that patients are usually not allowed to or prevented from using artifacts during the treatment (mostly no food and drinks). First, a company may have a difficulty to obtain access to places where patients wait for treatment. Second, consumers-patients are likely to bring products with them from home to entertain them (of brands they know). Third, patients often arrive with a family or friend companion, thus satisfying their need for affiliation with another person which dominates affiliation with an object. Still, there is room for ingenuity how to locate the brand close enough to the treatment episode (e.g., shops offering books or toys, especially for children, in the premises of a clinic or hospital).
Trekking or hiking in nature — Some routes, particularly in mountainous areas, can be quite adventurous, not to say dangerous. If a brand could find a way to introduce its product just before the consumer starts the hiking trip, it may benefit from being with him or her if fear arises. One problem is that hikers are advised and even required not to embark alone on more dangerous routes. Another problem is that those trekking or hiking sites often offer local brands, that while not being familiar to the consumers they also are not likely to be available to them at home, and thus the opportunity to develop a relationship based on the early emotional attachment is lost.
Offering legal, financial, insurance, and technical services in events of crisis — In various occasions of accidents, malfunctions, and disasters, people need help to cope with the crisis and the negative emotions it may evoke, particularly fear. A service provider would be expected to counsel the customer in his or her distress, and of course propose a solution (e.g. how to fix one’s home after a fire or an earthquake). Unfortunately, one cannot make an eye contact with an intangible service. The company has to find creative and practical ways to make itself readily visible and accessible to the consumer when needed by offering instruments and cues for making contact (e.g., an alarm and communication device for the elderly and people with more risky medical conditions).
Dunn and Hoegg are aware of the limitation of the findings to unfamiliar brands. They reasonably propose that “because fear leads to a general motivation to affiliate, emotional brand attachment would be enhanced regardless of the familiarity with the brand” (p. 165). It should take further research, however, to substantiate this proposition.
Despite the possible difficulties companies will likely need to deal with, the doors are not completely shut to them to benefit from this phenomenon. But they must come up with creative and non-intursive solutions to make their brands and products present in the right place at the right time. At the very least, marketers should be aware of the potential effect of sharing fear with the consumer and understand how it can work in the brand’s benefit. It is worth remembering, after all, the saying “a friend in need is a friend indeed” whereby in some incidents the friend can be a brand.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
(1) “The Effect of Fear on Emotional Brand Attachment”; Lea Dunn and JoAndrea Hoegg, 2014; Journal of Consumer Research, 41 (June), pp. 152-168.
(2) “What Is Emotion?: History, Measures and Meanings”; Jerome Kagan, 2007; New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Also see: “The Experience of Emotion”; Lisa Feldman Barrett, Bejta Mesquita, Kevin N. Ochsner, & James J. Gross, 2007; Annual Review of Psychology, 58, pp. 373-403.
(3) “The Ties That Bind: Measuring the Strength of Consumers’ Emotional Attachments to Brands”; Mathew Thomson, Deborah J. MacInnis, & C. Whan Park, 2005; Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15 (1), pp. 77-91.
(4) “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. Eisengerich, & Dawn Iacobucci, 2010; Journal of Marketing, 74 (November), 1-17.
(5) “Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research”; Susan Fournier, 1998; Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (March), pp. 343-373.
(6) “Measuring Emotions in the Consumption Experience”; Marsha L. Richins, 1997; Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (September), pp. 127-146.