Building Your Brand
Professor Susan Fiske has expanded on her years of research on the psychology of discrimination to explain why we love Brand A and hate Brand B.
Professor Susan Fiske has expanded on her years of research on the psychology of discrimination to explain why we love Brand A and hate Brand B.
Sameer A. Khan

Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology and public affairs, has spent years studying how we make judgments about people, finding that our perceptions stem from instant evaluations of warmth and competence. Recently, she examined how we assess products and concluded that we use the same criteria for faceless companies as we do for friends. Rather than dispassionately weighing cost and quality, we are loyal to a brand based on swift, internal decisions.

“When we make snap judgments, we use whatever information is available to decide very quickly if another person shares our values or if they’re a threat,” Fiske says. “We do it with racial and ethnic groups, as well as with large human collections like companies.” In her book, The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies, written with marketing consultant Chris Malone, Fiske expands on her years of research on the psychology of discrimination to explain why we love Brand A and hate Brand B.

Working with other social psychologists, especially her former student Amy Cuddy *05, now a professor at Harvard Business School, Fiske found that we instinctively are drawn to people who exhibit two traits: warmth and competence. A lack of one or both of these characteristics inspires suspicion, pity, or even disgust.

Since we use these same judgments with brands, a company must prove that it is well-intentioned — akin to the warmth humans show to earn trust — as well as capable. Companies, says Fiske, “need to be sincere about their commitment to their customers because that’s the relationship that will build loyalty over the long term.” Fiske says we’re less price-sensitive than we imagine; we will pay a higher price for a more trustworthy experience.

Using an online survey of a random sample of 120 adults, Fiske and Malone found that the companies that scored high in warmth and competence — Hershey’s, Johnson & Johnson, and Coca-Cola — were also likeliest to be respected. Troubled brands like BP ranked low on both traits, arousing feelings of contempt. Government-subsidized corporations like Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service generally were regarded as well-meaning but incompetent and drew pity from respondents. Luxury brands like Rolex and Mercedes, meanwhile, were seen as efficient but aloof and tended to inspire envy, though Fiske notes that among wealthy customers, an aura of exclusivity could make those companies seem more attractive.

A positive interaction with a business has the same components as a positive interaction with a person, Fiske asserts, so corporations’ gestures need to be genuine. A mail-in rebate that is impossible to claim will leave customers fuming because they will view the company as deceitful. The companies that earn our trust appear warm and accessible — they list their phone numbers on their websites, make sure that their customer-service lines are staffed properly, and actively solicit feedback. “Sincerity is hard to fake,” Fiske says. “People are great fraud detectors.” 

That’s why, although it seems counterintuitive, one of the best times to shore up customer loyalty is when a business has made a significant misstep. In 2009, Domino’s Pizza was facing an unusual dilemma: It was rated highest among its competitors for service and speed of delivery, but when it came to taste and quality, it was dead last. When the company began to shoot commercials for its revamped recipes, it featured company employees — including its CEO and the head chef — openly admitting that their old pizza hadn’t been very good. The ads even showed focus-group footage of disgruntled consumers complaining that Domino’s pizza crust tasted like cardboard. After the ads ran, sales soared, Fiske says.

The key to Domino’s success, according to Fiske, was that the company managed to display vulnerability and remorse. By saying that it had failed, Domino’s was offering a sincere plea for forgiveness. It wasn’t a corporate interaction — it was human. 

“The closer a company can get to replicating an honest, person-to-person relationship, the more loyalty it will generate,” Fiske says. “Companies do better in the long run if they own their mistakes and try to do right by their customers. Fundamentally, it’s just like any successful individual relationship. It’s all about respect.”