How to Change Your Brand to Change Customer Behavior

Anthropomorphizing is attributing human characteristics to non-human things we find in our world – animals, plants, cars, nations, furniture, natural forces or art. Remember that relationship you have with your teddy bear? Or your 1976 muscle car? And how that relationship affected your behavior?

With its deep and ancient roots in storytelling going back over about 40,000 years, anthropomorphizing is something humans do to connect with something they care about.

The question is: can anthropomorphizing through storytelling help your brand connect more deeply with your customers?

We believe so.

Humanizing your company, product or service so customers will find it more likeable and relatable gives rise to the human emotions that not only facilitates decision-making on a deeply ingrained level – it also affects people’s behaviors. For example, research shows that people exposed to the Apple brand behave more creatively and groups exposed to the Disney brand behave more honestly.

Interestingly, a study has found that thinking about brands as people can make one either take on the brand’s characteristics or display the opposite behavior depending on how they feel about the brand.

Pankaj Aggarwal from the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) teamed up with Ann L. McGill of the University of Chicago and looked at an effect called behavioral priming.

As compared to research conducted in the past, the researchers found that the whole process is not as simple as merely liking or disliking a brand. In a series of experiments they confirmed the social priming effect, but also showed that the social role that the brand represented also had an effect on behavior.

Specifically, they looked at the difference between a brand that was perceived as a “partner,” and one that was perceived as a “servant.” In one part of the experiment the researchers used questions about the Volvo automobile, which is perceived as extremely safe. They manipulated whether participants saw the Volvo as a partner or a servant.

Volvo viewed as a Partner:

When Volvo is presented as a partner (“Volvo works with you, helping you take care of what’s important.”), people who like the brand take fewer risks. If they don’t like the Volvo brand, they take more risks.

Volvo viewed as a Servant:

When the brand is presented as a servant (“Volvo works for you, taking care of what’s important.”), behavior was the opposite. Those who liked the Volvo brand took more risks and those who did not like the brand took fewer risks.

For partner brands that people like, we want to behave like them. “Volvo and I want to be safe, so I will behave to be safe.” When partner brands are not liked, we want to run away, so we do the opposite. In a servant relationship, people expect the brand to take care of duties for them. Therefore, when liking the brand, people drive carelessly because it puts the onus on the Volvo vehicle to keep people safe. If you don’t like Volvo (you want to show that you don’t need Volvo’s benefits) you end up driving more carefully.

Anthropomorphizing a brand requires a brand to have existing proof points. A brand like Volvo has a track record in automotive safety. Independent ratings regularly select Volvo vehicles among the safest on the road. Innovation such as pedestrian and cyclist detection to automatically brake when danger is in front of the car highlight their commitment to their brand qualities.

Combining the values of a brand and its proof points to anthropomorphize the brand can create the enduring preference and loyalty brands live for, but with all the complexity inherent in human nature, we advise you proceed with studied caution to ensure that anthropomorphizing your brand triggers the successful interactions and behaviors you want.

Link to study