Brands are not people

How does the brain react when it sees brands? Does it treat them as people or objects? And how does this effect how we should treat the brands we work on day in and day out.


In marketing, brands are often personified. They are said to have personality traits, to form relationships with consumers, to nurture bonds.

In fact, just yesterday, I read a piece by Julissa Bonfante in The Huffington Post which stated, “Research indicates that the relationships we have with brands is similar to the relationships we have with people”. The research she was referring to was, somewhat conveniently, not referenced or linked to.

Many Planners rally against such terminology. Martin Weigel, Head of Planning at W+K Amsterdam, for example refers to such talk as “all rhetoric no evidence”.

As such it was interesting to read about a study in Phil Barden’s “Decoded: The Science Behind why we Buy” that broached the subject head on. Does the brain treat brands like people?

“A neuroscientific study at Michigan University, led by Marketing Professor Carolyn Yoon (2006), looked at just that. Participants in a brain scanner saw brands that they knew and used (e.g. Apple, McDonald’s) as well as other brands that they knew but didn’t use. On top of that, the names of well known people such as Bill Clinton were displayed along with participant’s own name. Brands and names were presented together with a multitude of adjectives from a standard test of brand evaluation, e.g. ‘reliable’, ‘honest’, ‘likeable’, or ‘jolly’. The participants were asked to indicate, by pushing a button, whether or not an adjective fitted a brand or person. At the same time, readings were taken of their brain activity.

The result was very clear. When participants judged people (whether celebrities or themselves), this activated the medial part of the frontal lobe. It is known that this brain region reacts to people. What happened with the brands? They activated an area that is known to react to physical objects. Brands are objects to the brain; they do, after all, belong to physical objects and businesses. From the brain’s point of view, therefore, brands are not people with personality traits. Concluding the study, Carolyn Yoon’s research team wrote: ‘These results cast doubt on the view that products and brands are like people.”

The book sums this up nicely a little later on.

“The nature of the relationship between between consumer and brand is not that of an interpersonal relationship. Customers do not buy a brand’s personality traits but its expected instrumentality to achieve a certain goal.”

If you found this helpful, you can read more from Phil Barden here.

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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