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How customers love brands

July 26, 2023

Customers can develop very personal relationships with brands. Senior Researcher David Bourdin has now developed a robust scale that can be used across countries and studies to measure these customer-brand relationship norms.

David Bourdin, Senior Researcher at the Department of Communication at FHWien der WKW, traveled to Seoul (South Korea) in July for the Global Marketing Conference to present the article “What Can I Expect From This Brand? Development and Validation of a Consumer-Brand Relationship Norms Scale,” which is currently going through the review process at an international journal. With Katerina Makri from the University of Vienna and Georgios Halkias from Copenhagen Business School, he developed and validated a scale that can be used to assess what normative expectations consumers have in their relationships with brands.

High expectations of brands in customer-brand relationships

People sometimes develop a strong attachment and even passionate love for a brand, especially when consuming the brand helps define, construct, and sustain consumer identity. Companies have encouraged this evolution in recent decades by adopting a relationship-based marketing perspective instead of a purely transactional one. Indeed, scholars have described a paradigm shift from marketing mix management to an era of relationship building and management. As a result, consumers today view some brands as “relationship partners,” much like they do in interpersonal relationships. They prefer brands that meet certain expectations in terms of customer relationships, and they feel disappointed or even cheated when brands fail to meet these expectations.

If consumers feel the risk that a brand might mislead or deceive them as a relationship partner by violating basic rules, they may be less willing to interact with the brand (e.g., buy the brand’s products). Violations of expected behavior on the part of brands probably do not cause as much resentment as in interpersonal relationships because relationships with brands can be more easily reconsidered or terminated, but it is precisely these low switching costs for consumers that can be very challenging for companies seeking to build a long-term customer relationship management strategy. However, despite the obvious relevance of behavioral norms in the context of consumer-brand relationships, there are surprisingly no established and reliable measurement tools to operationalize these norms in empirical studies.

Scale validation for future studies

To this end, David Bourdin and his co-authors developed and validated a scale to capture relationship norms between consumers and brands by researching relevant items from previous literature:

  1. These were screened for content fit in the B2C context and then categorized by 6 experts in terms of appropriateness and necessity to reflect the construct consumer-brand relationship norms (Study 1).
  2. After this initial cleanup, the 10 remaining items went through an exploratory factor analysis after data collection using 8 real brands from 4 product categories, the results of which suggested that the scale had a unidimensional factor structure (Study 2).
  3. Subsequently, a confirmatory factor analysis was conducted with data from another study in Germany to establish the convergence and discriminant validity of the scale items and thus the reliability of the overall scale (Study 3).
  4. Finally, in the last study (Study 4), the nomological validity of the scale was ensured by embedding the construct in a structural equation model that maps a range of influencing factors and consequences of consumer-brand relationship norms. For this study, 869 U.S. consumers were surveyed to also examine the measurement invariance of the scale in a cross-country comparison (U.S. vs. Germany) and thus gain initial insights into the international robustness and applicability of the newly developed scale.

From a scholarly perspective, the work of David Bourdin and his colleagues contributes to the brand literature by presenting a robust and parsimonious scale for measuring consumer-brand relationship norms that can be applied consistently across studies, thus enabling future integrative work such as meta-analytic investigations, replication studies, and systematic literature reviews on this topic.

Implications for companies

Despite the methodological focus of the paper, the results of the 3rd study also offer practical insights for brand managers:

First, they show that consumers’ belief that a brand cares about their well-being and actively helps nurture the consumer-brand relationship leads to feelings of love toward the brand and stronger purchase intentions. Therefore, corporate communication strategies should convey that the brand is a reliable and accommodating partner that is willing to go the “extra mile” beyond regulatory compliance. This can be achieved, for example, by tailoring digital communications to individual consumers, by offering exclusive deals to loyal customers, by:

  • a loyalty program with attractive benefits is introduced,
  • new brand developments are made highly transparent,
  • response times to inquiries or complaints are minimized,
  • responding very generously and competently to unforeseen brand failures; and
  • content or guidance is provided to help customers resolve issues.

Second, the positive effect of relational norms on brand love is even more pronounced when brands are anthropomorphized by consumers. Building a unique brand personality, consistently associating the brand with human-like attributes, and using product, packaging, or advertising design elements that are perceived as human can therefore be viable options for companies that want to intensify their efforts to build customer relationships.

About the Global Marketing Conference

The international conference is held every two years, attracted around 800 participants this year, and is organized by the Global Alliance of Marketing & Management Associations (GAMMA), an umbrella organization of national and regional scientific marketing associations. Founding members include, for example, the European Marketing Academy, Australian & New Zealand Marketing Academy, Korean Scholars of Marketing Science, and Japan Society of Marketing and Distribution.