Breakdown and Dissolution of Person-Brand Relationships

Mary T. Fajer, University of Portland
John W. Schouten, University of Portland
ABSTRACT - This theoretical paper examines several models of the dissolution of interpersonal relationships and explores their relevance to the context of person-brand relationships. From a grounding in interpersonal relationship theory we propose several integrative models to guide discussion and research in the area of person-brand break-ups. Topics addressed include types of person-brand relationships, latent causes and patterns of person-brand break-ups, processes of relationship dissolution, and affective and behavioral consumer responses throughout.
[ to cite ]:
Mary T. Fajer and John W. Schouten (1995) ,"Breakdown and Dissolution of Person-Brand Relationships", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 663-667.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 663-667

BREAKDOWN AND DISSOLUTION OF PERSON-BRAND RELATIONSHIPS

Mary T. Fajer, University of Portland

John W. Schouten, University of Portland

[Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Susan Fournier for encouragement and guidance on this project.]

ABSTRACT -

This theoretical paper examines several models of the dissolution of interpersonal relationships and explores their relevance to the context of person-brand relationships. From a grounding in interpersonal relationship theory we propose several integrative models to guide discussion and research in the area of person-brand break-ups. Topics addressed include types of person-brand relationships, latent causes and patterns of person-brand break-ups, processes of relationship dissolution, and affective and behavioral consumer responses throughout.

INTRODUCTION

Relationships between people and brands in some cases bear notable resemblances to interpersonal relationships (Fournier 1994). Feelings that are important in the development and maintenance of interpersonal relationships, such as attraction, intimate understanding, sensual enjoyment, and feelings of attachment, security, comfort, stability, and self-worth (Drigotas and Rusbult 1992), may also manifest as important characteristics of peoples' relationships with brands. Furthermore, the elements of interpersonal relationships that tend to give them longevity, such as investment, commitment, dependence, and integration in social networks (Lund 1985), may also constitute exit barriers to person-brand relationships.

The focus of this conceptual exercise is the dissolution of person-brand relationships. Understanding the breakdown and dissolution of person-brand relationships has practical relevance to marketers interested in issues of customer retention. Customer retention has a significant impact on a company's profitability. It is estimated that a 5% reduction in consumer defection can improve a business' long-term profits by 25-80% (Reichheld and Sasser 1990). The clear implication is that not only must we understand how relationships are formed between people and brands, we must also be aware of the factors that drive them (or allow them to drift) apart.

Our purpose here is to lay a foundation for understanding break-ups between people and brands using frameworks of interpersonal break-ups as a theoretical starting point. We examine several models of interpersonal break-ups and assess their potential relevance to the person-brand domain. We propose a model of person-brand break-ups that accounts for different types of relationships, different underlying causes, patterns, and processes of dissolution, and different consumer behaviors in the course of disengagement with a brand.

PERSON-BRAND RELATIONSHIPS

A meaningful discussion of relationship dissolution requires as a starting point an understanding of what kinds of relationships are dissolving. Fournier (1994) defines a person-brand relationship in terms of three key dimensions: 1) interdependence or reciprocation of action and benefit, 2) real or anticipated interaction over time, and 3) a bond that may be instrumental, affective, or both.

As with people, not all brands matter equally in psychological or social ways to consumers. Rodin (1978) suggests that, although we like all of our friends, we do not value them equally. There is an ordering process which depends on 1) the importance of the liking criteria satisfied, 2) the substitutability of the friend, and 3) the pleasure/cost ratio of the friendship. We propose that people value brands for similar reasons, i.e., based on the satisfaction of certain liking criteria, perceived substitutability, and general assessments of costs versus benefits.

Although attraction brings people (and people and brands) together initially, the ability of a relationship to endure owes much to exit barriers. Observing that "empty shell marriages" often survive without affection, Lund (1985) proposes a barriers model of relationship longevity. Barriers to the dissolution of interpersonal relationships are, beyond and separate from love or attraction, a function of investment and commitment (Lund 1985). These barriers are comprised of such elements as effort, expenditure of resources, sacrifice of other interests, private pledges, and public announcements (Kanter 1972). In the person-brand domain investment and commitment are at least partially related to product categories. Consumables and packaged goods require little investment in money and time per purchase. Durables, on the other hand, are relatively expensive and may financially commit the consumer to years of ownership. Services occupy a special class of brands due to interpersonal dimensions and the possibility of truly dyadic communication between the consumer and the brand. Less tangible than time and money, yet also important as barriers to dissolution, are psychic investments such as the incorporation of the brand into one's personal or group identity.

Many kinds of interpersonal relationships merit scrutiny for their relevance to the person-brand context. Rose and Serafica (1986) identify various types of friendships such as "casual friends," "close friends," and "best friends" which vary in their levels of attraction, commitment, and exclusivity. Drawing upon models of attraction and commitment in interpersonal relationships we offer the following typology (Figure 1) of person-brand relationships as the focus of our discussion.

Higher-order relationships differ from lower-order relationships by consumer loyalty to the brand, a function of exit barriers of commitment and investment. The model presents a loyalty-ordered set of purchase behaviors and their interpersonal analogs.

Brand trying is the initial purchase of a brand. Like an experiment with a potential friendship, brand trying may lead to brand liking and, eventually, to a higher-order relationship. Lower levels of satisfaction may lead the consumer to regard the brand as an acquaintance (neither liked nor disliked) or to reject the brand altogether as a possible friend.

Brand liking occurs when a brand has been tried and has met a consumer's liking criteria. Like casual friends, brands at this stage have not yet formed the barriers of investment and commitment necessary to establish the person-brand dyad as a relationship.

Multi-brand resurgent loyalty (Sherry 1989) refers here to a person-brand relationship which has been tried, has met the consumer's liking criteria, and has progressed into an ongoing, loyal, but non-exclusive relationship of some duration. Analogous to close friends, such brands can be called upon and trusted but are not given exclusive best-friend status. Variety is sought, but the same brands are filtered in and out over time (Fournier 1994).

Brand loyalty refers to a "best-friend" relationship wherein the brand has been tried, has met the consumer's liking criteria, and has progressed into an ongoing, exclusive (from the consumer's point of view) relationship of some duration. An important factor in the stability of interpersonal relationships is the perceived quality or attractiveness of one's best alternative partner (Simpson 1987); in the case of brand loyalty no alternative is perceived as sufficiently attractive to override the barriers of investment and commitment to the brand.

FIGURE 1

TYPOLOGY OF LOYALTY-ORDERED PERSON-BRAND RELATIONSHIPS

Brand addiction defines an intensely brand-loyal relationship with the distinguishing component of psychological and/or physiological dependency (Solomon 1992). Brand-addicted relationships are characterized by a consumer's extreme reliance on the brand because of a perception of non-substitutability. The brand is like a crucial friend upon which the person relies for well being.

Summary

We have proposed a conceptual model of person-brand relationships as a point of departure for discussing the dissolution of such relationships. The model builds upon the metaphor of friendships for person-brand dyads of varying levels of loyalty. We propose that a higher-order person-brand relationship develops much like a friendship, beginning with a certain level of attraction and progressing to some degree of loyalty through increasing investment in and commitment to the relationship.

TERMINATING PERSON-BRAND RELATIONSHIPS

Interpersonal relationships may attenuate and dissolve for many reasons and through many different patterns and processes. We next examine several models of relationship dissolution for their potential relevance to the context of person-brand break-ups.

Interpersonal break-ups may be triggered by attitudes and actions of either or both partners. Duck (1982) identifies four latent causes of relationship dissolution which are potentially instructive in the person-brand context. 1) Pre-existing Doom: Certain inherent features enhance the chances of a satisfactory relationship and, conversely, relationships lacking these inherent features, or that fail to demonstrate them, will be likely to dissolve. Inherent incompatibilities between a person and a brand would fall into this category. 2) Mechanical Failure: Poor conduct within the relationship is the ultimate cause of dissolution. In the person-brand context this would include any loss of customer satisfaction due to poor brand performance. 3) Process Loss: A relationship fails to develop to its theoretical optimum. Brand management strategies that fail to reinforce or cultivate consumer commitment, or that do not keep pace with changing consumer needs, may leave consumers open to attractive alternatives. 4) Sudden Death: New, surprising, and negative information about a partner can hasten relationship dissolution. In the marketplace such information might include, for example, exposure of corporate malfeasance or product tampering.

Latent flaws in person-brand relationships may lead to several general patterns of break-up. The following examples are suggested by patterns of friendship termination identified by Rose (1984). 1) Friends become physically separated: The brand becomes unavailable to the consumer through some action of the marketer or because the consumer relocates to a region where the brand is not offered. 2) New friends replace old: A new brand replaces a former brand because it better meets a consumer's needs or liking criteria. 3) One friend reveals or does something to alienate the other: Some critical and disruptive aspect of brand performance leads to consumer dissatisfaction.

With some understanding of the latent causes and patterns of interpersonal break-ups, and reflecting on our loyalty-ordered model of person-brand relationships, we now advance a more integrative framework of person-brand break-ups. Depending on the nature of the relationship and the latent causes of dissolution we expect that break-ups will occur according to certain patterns and that customers will experience a variety of affective consequences.

The termination of a person-brand relationship may be initiated either by the consumer or by the brand. We assume that brand-initiated break-up follows one of two patterns: 1) the product is no longer manufactured or is no longer distributed to the consumer's region (process loss), or 2) service is revoked or a product is repossessed because the consumer fails to comply with the brand's requirements for use (consumer-side mechanical failure). Brand-initiated break-ups may occur at any level of the hierarchy of relationships described above; however, affective responses of the consumer will differ greatly according to the levels of liking, investment, and commitment associated with the brand. The differences conceivably range from the inconvenience of denied access to a potential friend to the grief associated with the sudden loss of a cherished, intimate relationship.

Consumer-initiated break-ups are more varied and probably much more common that those initiated by the brand. We use the term brand switching to designate a consumer-initiated, perhaps temporary deviation from the regular purchase of a brand. Brand switching may be facilitated by process loss on the brand side leading to mild consumer dissatisfaction. It may also reflect consumer boredom or variety seeking.

Brand spurning refers to a permanent, consumer-initiated dissolution of the relationship with no intent to repurchase the brand. The probable causes of brand spurning in lower-order relationships (i.e., "potential" or "casual" friendships) are pre-existing doom or mechanical failure. In the higher-order "best friend" and "crucial friend" categories exit barriers such as monetary investment, personal identification, integration into social networks, or even physiological or psychological dependencies, act as ballast that stabilize the relationship through times of consumer stress or poor brand performance. In these higher-order relationships brand-spurning behavior probably results only from compound mechanical failures or major changes in consumers' roles and/or liking criteria. In the case of serious or compound mechanical failures the break-up may be characterized by strongly negative consumer affect including anger, bitter disappointment, and/or vengefulness. Such feelings may culminate in complete brand alienation. We define brand alienation as a state of extreme, generalized dissatisfaction that goes beyond the spurning of a single product to encompass family brands and product line extensions.

Summary

We have conceptualized patterns of person-brand break-up taking our lead from observed patterns of friendship dissolution and accounting for prior levels of loyalty to the brand and different latent causes of break-up. In general we propose that at greater levels of loyalty the patterns of break-up become more complex and more disruptive or disturbing to the consumer. In order to deal with the complexity of such break-ups we next turn our attention to processes of relationship dissolution.

PROCESSES OF DISSOLUTION

"The most important observation for research is that we must avoid the risk of seeing relationship dissolution as an event...it is a process, and an extended one with many facets: affective behavioral, cognitive, intra-individual, dyadic and social." (Duck 1982)

The breakdown and dissolution of interpersonal relationships has a dynamic all its own that is not a mere linear reversal of the process of relationship formation (Duck and Lea 1983). Duck (1982) describes four separate but related processes inherent to interpersonal break-ups. We present them and recast them into the context of person-brand relationships. The process appears to occur more or less sequentially according to the following model:

Break-Down + Decline + Disengagement + Dissolution

Break-down refers to the attenuation of a relationship resulting from intentional or unintentional disruption in its conduct; break-down may be temporary and may or may not lead to dissolution of the relationship. In the person-brand context break-down may result from unmet expectations for brand performance, changing consumer needs or liking criteria, or the appearance of potentially superior alternatives to the brand.

Decline is the next stage in the deterioration of an interpersonal relationship and refers to a diminishing of intimacy or liking for a partner or for the nature or form of the relationship. In the person-brand context we interpret decline as an affective reduction of liking or of loyalty which may involve a re-classification of the relationship to a lower level in our typology of person-brand relationships.

Disengagement refers to the interpersonal processes of communication and behavior that lead toward withdrawal from the relationship. Aspects of a consumer's disengagement from a brand-loyal relationship would include such behaviors as communication with other consumers (e.g., maligning the brand), and the active exploration and/or establishment of alternative brand relationships.

Dissolution refers to the termination or permanent dismemberment of the relationship, either through negotiation or unilateral withdrawal. In the terminology we have chosen for patterns of person-brand break-ups, dissolution can occur as brand-initiated separation, brand-switching, or brand-spurning behavior.

Loyalty effects on the dissolution process

In conceptualizing the process of person-brand break-ups it becomes evident that certain stages vary in importance and intensity depending in part on the antecedent level of loyalty to the brand. For example, break-down is probably less dangerous to a loyal than to a non-loyal relationship. Exit barriers of investment and commitment should provide consumers with some incentive to endure fluctuations in brand performance and, perhaps, to rationalize them away. In cases of the eventual dissolution of brand-loyal or brand-addicted relationships break-down may be a cyclic and/or prolonged process pushed along only by multiple failures in the conduct of the relationship.

Decline is an intra-psychic process of affect reduction. If we view decline as the erosion of exit barriers it stands to reason that the process should be more complex and involved where strong or multiple barriers exist. In cases where commitment to the brand is cemented in social relationships (e.g., in brand-dedicated clubs or users' groups), decline may require rituals of social withdrawal associated with disengagement.

Of all the stages in the dissolution process disengagement is perhaps the most ritualized and potentially damaging to the brand. It is in disengagement that consumers voice (and socially reinforce) their dissatisfaction with a brand and create social and/or psychological forces to counter the exit barriers that constitute brand loyalty. The more consumers invest in the brand, the more complex their disengagement activities must be. Disengagement from a higher-order relationship may therefore be characterized by a long period of rather subtle activities and affective changes, or alternatively by a short, intense conflagration of consumer response and emotion.

Dissolution or termination of a deteriorated person-brand relationship might seem straightforward: a simple, unilateral determination not to purchase the brand any more. For all the apparent simplicity of such a decision there may still be affective differences related to prior loyalty and resultant intensity and complexity of decline and disengagement. We would expect a low-investment relationship to dissolve with a whimper; the break-up of a high-investment relationship should be quite noisy by comparison.

Summary

We have advanced a model of the dissolution process as it may relate to person-brand relationships. We have elaborated the model somewhat with probable loyalty-related differences in consumer affect throughout the process. In order to further clarify some of the intricacies of the break-up process we next introduce a model of consumer responses to dissatisfaction in person-brand relationships.

CONSUMER RESPONSES TO DISSATISFACTION IN PERSON-BRAND RELATIONSHIPS

Dissatisfaction in a relationship appears to involve a fairly predictable set of behavioral responses, whether the relationship exists between a person and a social organization (Hirschman 1970), a person and a romantic partner (Rusbult, Zembrodt, and Gunn 1982), or a person and a brand (as we now propose). According to the model forwarded by Rusbult, et al (1982), dissatisfaction in a relationship elicits one or more of four responses: exit, voice, loyalty, and/or neglect.

Exit refers to the permanent termination of the (person-brand) relationship and corresponds to the dissolution stage in the process model suggested above. Voice refers to active communication of dissatisfaction to the partner (brand representative) with the intent of improving the situation. We define such communication as positive voice and suggest that it would occur during breakdown or decline of the person-brand relationship. Conversely, we define negative voice as consumers' vocalizations of dissatisfaction to third parties during or after the process of disengagement. Loyalty manifests as continuing in the (person-brand) relationship while hoping that the situation will improve. Given that loyalty wanes during the decline process we expect it to function most strongly during break-down; however, loyalty may still operate during the decline stage until the consumer begins active disengagement. Neglect is a failure to care for or cultivate the relationship. In the person-brand context neglect would include reduced use of the brand and experimentation with alternatives.

FIGURE 2

Consumer response through the dissolution process

Understanding the nature and timing of consumer responses to dissatisfaction in person-brand relationships may be especially instructive for the purpose of identifying opportunities for brand-side intervention in the dissolution process. In Figure 2 we suggest the probable timing of responses with respect to the stages of the dissolution process.

In the perhaps inevitable periods of relationship break-down loyalty may carry consumers safely through lapses of brand performance (or through vacillations in consumer likes and dislikes) with no serious long-term damage to the relationship. Some consumers may be sufficiently motivated to voice their concerns about the brand or the relationship at this stage, but that seems unlikely unless the relationship is truly dyadic, i.e., unless it has an interpersonal component that facilitates two-way communication with a brand representative. Such an interpersonal component may be a firm's best first defense against customer defection.

Once the relationship is in decline loyalty is eroding by definition and will not compensate indefinitely for consumer dissatisfaction. The trajectory of the person-brand relationship is toward dissolution, and the brand side of the relationship may well be oblivious to the danger. The possibility exists that consumers will open channels of communication, voice their concerns to some brand representative, and thereby create the opportunity for brand-side remediation of the relationship. That possibility is lessened, however, if consumers have never received communication from the brand side indicating responsiveness to their concerns. Lacking confidence in brand-side responsiveness, or lacking the motivation to voice their concerns, consumers may instead neglect the relationship and begin experimentation with alternative brands, thus beginning the process of disengagement.

During disengagement consumers may already recognize or even desire the coming dissolution of the relationship. If they enter this stage in an attitude of neglect, then neglect is probably the attitude they will maintain through final dissolution. If consumers have been voicing grievances with expectations of remediation, and those expectations are unmet, then the voice may turn stridently negative. Complaining behavior will become directed to third parties with a vengeance, and negative word-of-mouth may proliferate. At this point of crisis some consumers may allow the brand side "one last chance" to address grievances and control damages, but to expect anything less than a groveling CEO to assuage their feelings may be optimistic.

We expect that once dissolution is final and the consumer has exited the relationship, the exit door remains closed unless extraordinary circumstances reopen it. Ending a once loyal relationship is a high-involvement process in its own right and, therefore, should be subject to the same forces of attribution and dissonance reduction as any other high-involvement consumption decision.

Summary

We have adapted an exit-voice-loyalty-neglect model to the domain of person-brand relationships. We have then integrated it with a model of the dissolution process yielding potentially valuable insights for brand-side intervention. Close examination of our model argues for the value of developing, from the brand side, true dyadic (i.e., interpersonal) communication with a loyal customer base.

CONCLUSION

Interpersonal relationship theory offers many elegant and intriguing models with which to approach the topic of terminating person-brand relationships. We have advanced a comprehensive theoretical framework which may be valuable for heuristic purposes. The models should not be regarded as valid without empirical testing. We currently are in the process of exloring person-brand break-ups through depth interviews with adults who recently have terminated long-term usage of a wide variety of brands. Future research should also include stochastic testing.

The dissolution of an interpersonal relationship is not a perfect metaphor for brand-use termination. From a one-sided or monadic point of view the dynamics of an interpersonal break-up appear analogous in many ways to those of a person-brand break-up; yet an interpersonal relationship is dyadic in a way that person-brand relationships cannot be without the addition of a strong service component. We have attempted to acknowledge such differences in drawing our conclusions.

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