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The Pros and Cons of Humanizing a Brand

Marketers have for decades worked on brand anthropomorphism in an effort to build a stronger connection with consumers. Marina Puzakova’s work explores what happens when they succeed.

Story by

Tim Hyland

The idea of humanizing a brand in the pursuit of stronger sales is hardly new. In fact, it’s very old, and according to Marina Puzakova, the appeal of this tried-and-true strategy is fairly obvious: By imbuing a brand with human features or characteristics, marketers believe they can play on our collective social natures and foster a greater, deeper emotional connection between brand and consumer. It’s a strategy that endures, which is why we have not only the Pillsbury Doughboy, Michelin Man and Mr. Clean from yesteryear, but also the humanized M&M characters, the Geico gecko and Aflac duck of today.

These brands exist for the simple reason that their creators believe consumers may actually view them, in some ways, as humanlike. However, this may not always have positive consequences.

Puzakova, an associate professor of marketing, has for the past decade been building an area of study around what she calls “brand anthropomorphism.” And if there’s been one overarching takeaway from all of her work, it is that while the act of humanizing a brand may seem like a great idea—and oftentimes, it is—there are potential pitfalls to the strategy as well.

“Anybody could intuit that if you put a humanlike face on a brand ... that it could create more opportunities for creating stronger relationships,” Puzakova says. “But then you need to think about the next level—and when you do so, well, you realize that not all relationships are necessarily positive. Not all humans are positive, either.”

Indeed, Puzakova’s past work has shown that while anthropomorphized brands actually do often foster stronger connections between products and consumers, those stronger connections can actually backfire. As she explains, once a consumer begins to think of a brand as a “friend,” any subsequent failure by the brand can feel personal.

Because the brand connection is stronger, the sense of betrayal is stronger, too. “And that’s because [the brand] is ‘human,’” Puzakova explains. “In these cases, consumers may actually feel that the product is responsible for its own failure.”

Silly cartoonish illustrations including hamburger man

Humanizing a brand may seem like a great strategy, but there are potential pitfalls to the approach. 

Building on her ever-expanding body of research, Puzakova more recently discovered yet another potential pitfall for humanized brands. In work conducted with Pankaj Aggarwal of the University of Toronto, Puzakova set out to better understand how anthropomorphized brands might perform in situations in which consumers may be looking to leverage products to express or project self-identity.

After examining how consumers use products in pursuit of distinctiveness, she and Aggarwal found one huge potential drawback for humanized brands: namely, that because humanized brands have an identity of their own, those brand identities may actually clash with—and ultimately rival—the identity that the consumer is striving to create for himself or herself.

As a result, they say, consumers in these instances may be more likely to build self-identity through non-anthropomorphized brands.

She explains: “What we saw when it came to anthropomorphized brands was that people would react in a way that said, ‘No, I want to be the one who signals my identity to others. I want to be the one who expresses my own uniqueness. And when I choose a purse that I want to use to express my personality, I don’t want another human telling others who I am.’”

The work was published in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Importantly, Puzakova notes that the research does not call out any specific brands as problematic. Rather, what the work does is dive yet one level deeper into the world of anthropomorphized brands—and provide important insights for marketing professionals who may never have considered the possibility that their brands may end up serving as rivals to the very consumers they are trying to reach.

Illustration by Hisham Akira Bharoocha

This story originally appeared as "Brand As Friend, Brand As Foe" in the 2019 Lehigh Research Review.

Story by

Tim Hyland

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