At the end of the original Ghostbusters movie, when the heroes are told to choose the form of their destroyer, Dan Aykroyd’s character thinks of the most beloved, harmless thing he can: the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The fictional mascot for a marshmallow brand comes to life as a 100-foot-tall lumbering giant that wreaks havoc on New York before the Ghostbusters team can bring him down.
There is an unintended subtext to that scene: While humanized brand characters can create strong emotional bonds between consumers and products, they can cause an even stronger backlash when things go wrong.
The Pillsbury Doughboy. The M&M characters. The Walmart smiley face. The Michelin Man. The mustachioed guy on Pringles chips cans. Mr. Brawny. Putting a human face on a brand seems at first blush like a winning strategy, which helps explain why so many companies and brands do it.
Humanizing a product—known as anthropomorphization—with a mascot or icon that has human features such as eyes, mouth, legs, and arms leads consumers to think of it as almost alive, with its own mind, its own intentions, its own motivations. This branding strategy can forge stronger connections and brand loyalty when consumers’ experiences with the product are positive.
But research I have conducted with colleagues in recent years suggests there is a downside to convincing consumers to view your brand or company as human—or at least humanlike. When prices increase or the product fails, or the company is caught in wrongdoing, consumers are more likely to perceive it as a form of personal betrayal and attribute greater responsibility for a failure.
In a series of studies I conducted with Hyokjin Kwak of Drexel University and Joseph Rocereto of Monmouth University, we showed participants advertisements for both real and fictitious products. In some ads, brands were humanized and in some they were not. Then, we presented the study participants with negative news reports about product wrongdoings.
Across the board, participants reported stronger negative reactions to the humanized products when they failed. If consumers attribute human schemas—characteristics or motivations—to brands, it’s not surprising that they would attribute blame or responsibility for the malfunctioning of the product to the product itself. If a brand is alive, it has a mind, conscious will, and intentions and, thus, can be responsible for wrongdoing.
In another study conducted with Drs. Kwak and Rocereto, we interviewed mall shoppers and polled consumers on how they reacted to price increases by companies that employed humanized branding compared to companies that did not. We also examined sales data and estimated consumers’ price sensitivities across different product categories, including frozen pizza, margarine/spreads/butter, paper towels, potato chips, toilet tissue, and yogurt.
We consistently found that consumers are more sensitive to price variations when the brand is humanized. Through further experimental work, we also found support for the idea that people apply human schemas to those companies. So it is critical that companies that use humanized branding understand that the backlash they can expect to negative publicity or price increases is likely to be much stronger than if they used a non-humanized brand strategy.
That is not to say that companies shouldn’t use humanized branding, which is a powerful advertising tool. It simply underscores the importance of knowing the situations when such a strategy may backfire.
One of the interesting things we discovered is that men and women react very differently to price increases and decreases depending on whether the brand is humanized or not. We found support for the theoretical notion that men, in general, tend to expect relationships with others to be based on an equitable exchange. They tend to believe there is an implicit contract between companies and consumers, and if a humanized brand fails or raises its price, it has violated that implicit contract.
Women, on the other hand, tend to be more community-oriented consumers. That means they generally are more focused on what others think and what others’ needs and concerns are. So when companies humanize their products, women are more likely to apply those same beliefs that they usually apply to other humans. When a company with a humanized brand raises prices, for example, the community-focused consumer might give them the benefit of the doubt: Maybe the cost of raw materials went up. Perhaps inflation was a factor. There might be legitimate internal reasons the company needed to raise prices. When the brand is humanized, those community-oriented consumers do not perceive the price increase as negatively as they do when a non-humanized brand raises prices.
For companies, that means when something goes wrong with a product, different advertising and communications strategies are called for, depending on whether a brand is humanized or not, and whether the target audience is primarily males or females.
The potential damage may be nowhere near as dire as that posed by the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. But failing to understand the possible dangers of having a humanized brand when something goes wrong can lead to lost sales and more negative consumer sentiment.