Emotional Attachment to Brands: The Implications for Marketers

Matthew Thomson
Queens University

Overview of Findings 

Over the course of their lives, consumers interact with thousands of brands, but they develop attachments to only a few of them.

An attachment is a type of emotional bond that binds the consumer to particular brands and, from a marketing perspective, is what helps to explain why consumers are committed to certain brands.

Because these kinds of brands are important and meaningful to consumers, they often go out of their way to own and protect them. Determining how to measure the strength of this emotional bond between the consumer and the brand is addressed in a recent paper by researchers at the Queen’s Business School in Kingston, Ontario and the Marshall School of Business (USC) in Los Angeles, California (Thomson, MacInnis and Park, 2005). 

Over the course of 5 studies, the authors develop a measure that is designed to assess the strength of a consumer’s emotional attachment to a product brand.

Relying on prior research on attachments culled from a variety of academic disciplines (e.g. Richins 1994; Hazan & Shaver, 1994) and using a combination of student and non-student respondents, the paper advances a reliable and valid scale. It also discriminates this scale from other measures that are widely used in marketing such as attitude, involvement, loyalty and satisfaction.

The result is a measure that has a three-dimensional structure. That is, EA reflects the fact that consumers who are attached to brands report feeling affectionate towards, passionate about and connected to the brand. The paper also shows that consumers who are high in EA tend to be loyal to that brand and are willing to pay a premium for it as well.

Significance of the research

This paper advances the study of attachments in marketing by employing an under-researched theory that is linked to a long line of insightful psychological research.

Known as attachment theory (e.g. Bowlby, 1979), this approach lends itself to understanding the formation and development of people’s important relationships with consumption objects. In this paper, the authors consider the domain of product brands, but the theory promises to shed light on other aspects of consumer behavior such as service relationships, branding and consumer emotional biases. 

Second, this paper makes a contribution to the foundational discipline of psychology by demonstrating that not only do consumers form attachments to brands (a relatively novel object), but that one can directly measure the strength of this attachment bond in a parsimonious but theoretically-informed fashion. Thus this paper extends the useful boundary of attachment theory to the study of consumer psychology and invites additional interdisciplinary perspectives on other marketing topics.

Relevance for Marketers

The paper should prove useful to marketing practitioners because it proposes and empirically tests a measure that may be of particular use to consumer marketers who are interested in assessing certain aspects of the relationships that consumers often have with product brands.

Because the scale has been validated by “real consumers”, practitioners can have additional confidence that the scale is both robust and reliable. Finally, because the scale is relatively short and economical, marketers can use the scale in a relatively efficient manner.

References cited

Bowlby, J. (1979). The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. London: Tavistock.

Hazan, C. & Shaver, P.R. (1994). Attachment as an Organizational Framework for Research on Close Relationships. Psychological Inquiry, 5, 1-22.

Richins, M. L. (1994). Special Possessions and the Expression of Material Values. Journal of Consumer Research, 21, 522-533.

Thomson, Matthew, Deborah MacInnis and C.Whan Park, (2005), “The Ties that Bind: Measuring the Strength of Consumers’ Emotional Attachments to Brands”, Journal of Consumer Psychology , Vol. 1.

Related ideas and online sources of additional information

Alperstein, N. M. (1991). Imaginary Social Relationships with Celebrities Appearing in Television Commercials. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 35, 43-58.

Price, L. & Arnould, E. J. (1999). Commercial Friendships: Service Provider-Client Relationships in Context. Journal of Marketing, 63, 38-56.

Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A Triangular Theory of Love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.