Brands are constantly looking for ways to gain a competitive edge over their rivals. But if they’re not careful, they may wind up marketing their brand in a way that leads some consumers to view it as their rival.

In four studies I conducted with my colleague Pankaj Aggarwal, professor of marketing at the University of Toronto, we found that people who have a very strong desire to express their own uniqueness are turned off specifically by humanized brands that emphasize the brand’s own distinctiveness. Our research findings were recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

It seems somewhat counterintuitive. In general, if people want to demonstrate how unique they are, they tend to choose a unique product to express that desire. But our research found that is not the case when the product is marketed with humanlike features, such as eyes, mouth, legs, and arms (e.g., Fendi Peekaboo handbag), or when a brand communicates to consumers in the first-person language (making it seem more humanlike). Think the California Raisins, Mr. Peanut, the Michelin Man, or the M&M characters.

M&M characters on store front

A Question of Control

As I wrote in a previous ilLUminate blog post, humanizing brands—known as anthropomorphism—can be a highly effective marketing strategy, subtly forging stronger connections and brand loyalty. But getting consumers to think of a brand as almost human or humanlike cuts both ways.

For example, Swatch, the luxury Swiss watch maker, came out with a collection of watches that bring to mind human identities, ranging from a “Blue Wild Face” to the hot-pink “Lady Spy.” So a man planning to attend a sophisticated social function who wants to signal his distinctiveness from others at the event may be targeted by advertisements for the “Blue Wild Face” watch. And a woman attending the same event may be targeted by ads for the “Lady Spy” watch—or the upscale “Wink Face” shoes from the Alice and Olivia brand or a “Love Birds Wink” handbag from the Kate Spade brand, or any number of other high-end, humanized products.

However, when signaling their own uniqueness is their primary goal, consumers view a humanized brand as a competitor seeking to assert its own uniqueness, rather than supporting or complementing the uniqueness of the individual wearing it.

How does that happen? It’s all about control. Having a feeling of control is a key aspect of expressing uniqueness. When marketers employ strategies to humanize a product, in essence they transform the product into a living being that has a mind of its own.

This is where the humanizing strategy cuts both ways. The humanlike features may make the product more endearing to many consumers. But it signals to those who have a very strong goal of communicating their own uniqueness that the product is not as easily controlled as one that isn’t humanized.

That means those particular consumers feel less in control when trying to express themselves, so they are probably going to like a humanized product less compared with a non-humanized product.

If the individual consumer and the brand both emphasize their uniqueness, there is one more key ingredient that triggers the negative response we saw in our studies: The product has to be something that will be seen by others in a public context. It’s hard to express how distinct and different you are from other people if other people aren’t around to notice.

A Supporting Brand Role

For brands that employ a humanized marketing strategy, there is good news: The negative consequences of humanizing a product can be reversed.

We showed two different types of advertisements to participants in one of our studies. One type simply emphasized the humanized product’s unique characteristics. The other featured brand messages that encouraged consumers to express their own uniqueness, supported their goals, and provided them with options without limiting their freedom of choice. Messages like, “I will complement your unique look.” Or “I am here to support you.”

We found that consumers liked the humanized brand more when the advertisements focused on consumer needs, and not just the unique product characteristics. The product was now a helpful friend, not a rival.

This provides novel insights into marketing strategies for distinctive and unique products: Humanizing unique products could be an effective brand strategy if those products are promoted with messages that support consumers’ freedom in their self-expression.

Marina Puzakova

Marina Puzakova

Marina Puzakova, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Marketing at Lehigh University College of Business.