Warmth & competence hold key to brand loyalty
Consumers evaluate brands in the same way that they instinctively perceive and judge one another - in terms of human warmth and competence - and these judgments are highly predictive of brand purchase intent and loyalty, according to a study by The Relational Capital Group and researchers at Princeton University led by Drs Susan Fiske and Nicolas Kervyn.
According to Chris Malone, chief advisory officer for The Relational Capital Group, this insight has the potential to completely reshape the way marketers manage and promote their brands.
The study evaluated the impact of the perception of warmth and competence on purchase intent and loyalty toward eight US brands: McDonalds, Burger King, BP, Shell, Tropicana, Minute Maid, Tylenol and Advil.
"Since the emergence of mass market brands, products and services have been defined by their features and benefits," Malone said. "But this study suggests that features and benefits are simply an incomplete subset of the broader categories of warmth and competence against which consumers perceive and judge brands."
According to Fiske and Kervyn, social psychologists have deduced over the past several decades that, as humans struggled for survival in the early days of evolution, they had to develop an ability to make two kinds of judgments with great speed and sufficient accuracy.
The first ability was discerning the intentions of others toward them - in today's terms, their 'warmth'. The second ability was to judge the ability of others to carry out their intentions - their 'competence'.
Through studies across 36 countries, researchers have validated warmth and competence as being universal dimensions of human social perception, and found that warmth includes traits such as friendliness, helpfulness, sincerity, trustworthiness and honesty, while competence is reflected by traits such as intelligence, skill, creativity, efficiency and effectiveness.
"We've found a strong statistical correlation between consumers' perceptions of a brand's warmth and competence and their intent to purchase and remain loyal to that brand," explained Fiske. "These findings are consistent with other studies we've conducted that validate the influence and predictive power of warmth and competence on human behaviour. In effect, it shows that people were the first brands and faces were the first logos."
Interestingly, the study also found that all of the brands studied fell short of consumer expectations on two critical warmth-related dimensions that are highly predictive of brand loyalty: 'honest and trustworthy' and 'acts with your best interests in mind'.
"Without those traits, genuine human trust and lasting brand loyalty are impossible," said Malone. "It seems that, in the eyes of consumers, the polices and practices of many companies consistently suggest that the company is primarily focused on advancing its own self-interest and can't be trusted to do what's in the best interest of the consumer, especially when no one is watching. News headlines provide fresh examples almost weekly."
But some highly successful brands (such as Zappos and USAA) instinctively employ warmth and competence principles in building legendary brand loyalty, Malone reported: "Despite this, the 'warmth and competence' model - and its business potential - have remained largely unknown outside of the field of social psychology. But brands now have the opportunity to consciously apply this model to build more durable and lasting customer relationships."