Although for decades researchers have studied how consumers form “like–dislike” attitudes toward brands, the past few years have seen a burgeoning interest among both practitioners and academics in consumers’ “love” for brands.1 Among practitioners, Roberts’s(2004) book Lovemarks expresses increased interest in this topic, and Bauer, Heinrich, and Albrecht (2009) recently documented a growing use of the concept of love in advertising.Academic research on brand love or related constructs has also been substantial (for reviews, see Albert,Merunka, and Valette-Florence 2008; Thomson, MacInnis,and Park 2005), finding it to be associated with positive word of mouth (WOM) and brand loyalty (Carroll and Ahuvia2006; Fournier 1998; Thomson, MacInnis, and Park2005), increased willingness to pay a price premium(Thomson, MacInnis, and Park 2005), and forgiveness of brand failures (Bauer, Heinrich, and Albrecht 2009), among other outcomes.
In consumer research, Shimp and Madden (1988) adapt Sternberg’s (1986) triangular theory of interpersonal love from psychology, and Ahuvia (1993) performs the first major empirical study. Fournier (1998) includes love as one of the core elements of consumers’ relationships with brands, and Ahuvia, Batra, and Bagozzi (2009), Carroll and Ahuvia (2006), and Albert, Merunka, and Valette-Florence (2008) explicitly study brand love. Related work spans self–brand connections (Escalas and Bettman 2003), consumers’attachments to brands (Park et al. 2010; Thomson,MacInnis, and Park 2005), the constructi on of self-identity (Belk 1988), consumer–object bonds (Kleine, Kleine, and Allen 1995), and brand communities and reference groups (McAlexander, Schouten, and Koenig 2002).
Although this interest suggests that brand love is an important marketing topic, little agreement exists as to what brand love is (see Albert, Merunka, and Valette-Florence 2008). Various definitions of brand love suggest that it has anywhere from 1 (Carroll and Ahuvia 2006) to 11 dimensions (Albert, Merunka, and Valette-Florence 2008), with most studies presenting differing conceptualizations. This disagreement persists in large measure because, as we discuss subsequently, most marketing studies have omitted the exploratory work needed in the early stages of research to establish the boundaries and contents of the key construct (Lincoln and Guba 1985). Instead, prior work has primarily substituted the vast psychological literature on interpersonal love (e.g., Aron and Westbay 1996; Sternberg 1986) and/or attachment (e.g., Bowlby 1979) for foundational exploratory research on brand love.
In the psychological literature, definitions of different types of interpersonal love (e.g., romantic, compassionate/altruistic) abound, many of which mention affection, attachment,intimacy, caring, intense longing, passion, and so on,depending on the specific type of love (Fehr 2006, pp. 226–28). However, there are compelling reasons these conceptualizations of interpersonal love should not be applied directly to brand love. We argue that brand love needs to be conceptualized from the ground up, built on a deep understanding of how consumers experience it, and only then should valid connections be made to the interpersonal love literature. Thus, the current research begins with two qualitative studies that provide a grounded and evidence-based foundation for our subsequent studies of brand love.
Consistent with research on interpersonal love (see Fehr 2006, 2009), we find that brand love, as consumers experience it, is best represented as a higher-order construct including multiple cognitions, emotions, and behaviors,which consumers organize into a mental prototype. These include, but go beyond, brand attachment (Thomson,MacInnis, and Park 1995) and self–brand connections(Escalas and Bettman 2003). Using survey data, we then develop a valid and parsimonious structural equations model of the brand love prototype that, because of its grounding in the two qualitative studies, uses significantly broader emotional and self-related constructs than prior work (e.g., a sense of natural comfort and fit, a feeling of emotional connectedness and bonding, a deep integrationwith a consumer’s core values, a heightened level of desire and interaction, a commitment to its long-term use, attitude valence and strength). We show that our multicomponent model of the brand love prototype greatly expands understanding of the consumer experience of brand love. It also explains more of the variation in repeat purchase intention,positive WOM, and resistance to negative information about the brand than a summary measure of brand love.Through this richer understanding of brand love, we gain insight into how brand liking can potentially be changed into brand love, and we draw theoretical and managerial implications.
Limitations of Extant Brand Love
Progress in brand love research has been hindered by a lack of exploratory studies that guide subsequent measurement and theory development. This has led to two major problems:assuming the equivalence of brand love and interpersonal love and the perception of brand love as an emotion rather than a relationship.Assuming the Equivalence of Brand Love and Interpersonal Love Rather than exploring brand love in an open-ended manner with consumers, most extant brand love research begins with a chosen theory of interpersonal love and then creates scale items to apply this theory to a marketing context. This approach presents a potential problem if brand love is not directly analogous to the particular theory of interpersonal love being used. Research suggests that this problem is significant(Aggarwal 2004; Richins 1997).
We are not suggesting that, because brand love may be different from interpersonal love, it is not a “real” type of love. There are multiple kinds of interpersonal love (e.g., romantic, parental, compassionate/altruistic), all of which are real (Fehr 2009), yet they vary from one another in their romantic love but not of parental love; thus, theories about parental love cannot be applied directly to romantic love.Similarly, theories of interpersonal love cannot be applied directly to brand love.
Albert, Merunka, and Valette-Florence (2008) provide a similar type of analysis to our Studies 1 and 2. They find that 11 dimensions underlie brand love: passion, a longduration relationship, self-congruity, dreams, memories,pleasure, attraction, uniqueness, beauty, trust (satisfaction),and a willingness to state this love. However, as they note(p. 1073), they fail to find the aspects of attachment and commitment found in most prior studies, and their results could be idiosyncratic given their choice of the three specific images used to depict brand love. Thus, further studies to understand how consumers experience brand love are still needed.
Brand Love as an Emotion Versus a Relationship
The existing literature also does not adequately distinguish between the love emotion and the love relationship. The love emotion is a single, specific feeling, akin to affection(Richins 1997), which, like all emotions, is short term and episodic. In contrast, the love relationship, like the friendship relationship, can last for decades and involves numerous affective, cognitive, and behavioral experiences (Fournier 1998). Extant brand love research sometimes studies the love emotion and sometimes studies the love relationship,but it rarely acknowledges the distinction.
The first step in understanding brand love is to uncover the implicit definition of love that consumers are using when they say they love a particular brand or product. Prior research has found that fuzzy and complex concepts such as emotions or love (Fehr 2006; Shaver et al. 1987)—concepts not amenable to definition in terms of necessary and sufficient criteria (Fehr 2006, p. 227)—are best described as prototypes (Rosch 1975). A prototype is a list of attributes (i.e., prototype features) that people associate with a particular kind of thing, in this case love (see Fehr 2006). These attributes are organized into a central or most typical exemplar of that category (Shaver et al. 1987, p. 1062), such as love, or a subcategory, such as romantic love, parental love,brand love, and so on. The more of these prototype features a relationship or an emotion has, and the more central those attributes are to the prototype, the more likely a consumer is to consider it some type of love. Because prototypes are cultural models,researchers have found high levels of similarityin interpersonal love prototypes across gender, sexual orientation, and age.
The Brand Love Prototype
Unlike classical definitions (Fehr and Russell 1991),which are consciously formulated to be precise, prototypebased definitions are fuzzy (Shaver et al. 1987) in two ways. First, prototype definitions are always characterized by fuzzy boundaries, which, in the current context, means that a typical consumer will view some brands as definitely loved, some brands as definitely not loved, and other brands falling into a “sort-of-loved” middle category. Second, prototype definitions are fuzzy because their features frequently include not only elements of the phenomenon itself but also antecedents and outcomes. For example, in Shaver et al. (1987, p. 1076), the prototype of the emotion fear includes antecedents (e.g., the threat of harm), attributes of fear itself (e.g., feelings of nervousness, cognitive inability to focus, behavioral acts of hiding or crying), and outcomes (e.g., self-comforting). This creates fuzziness because not all elements of a prototype are necessarily attributes of the core phenomenon itself.
When researchers elicit prototype features, it is often necessary to investigate whether some sort of dimensional reduction might be possible. For example, Fehr (1988) identifies 68 features for the love prototype, and Aron and Westbay (1996) use factor analysis to extract three underlying latent factors from them. Similarly, after obtaining similarity scores for 135 prototypicality-rated emotion terms,Shaver et al. (1987) cluster-analyze them hierarchically to determine how they might be split up at different levels of abstraction. Thus, at the maximal degree of abstractness,these emotion terms could be classified simply as being positive or negative; at the other, more subordinate, end of the tree, the analysis yielded 25 clusters: “The cluster-analytic results therefore provide three sets of candidates for basicness:a 2-term list at a high level of abstraction (essentially,positive vs. negative emotions), a 5- or 6-term list, and a 25-term list” (Shaver et al. 1987, p. 1068). In other words,the set of features that constitute a prototype can often be hierarchically organized at different degrees of abstractness.
Uncovering mental prototypes presents a challengeeasily verbalized. To produce a description of a largely tacit mental prototype, it is necessary to get respondents to use the prototype for its natural purpose, observe (or imagine)themselves doing this, and then report their observations to the researcher. Both Studies 1 and 2 follow this data collection strategy by prompting respondents to use their own love prototype to determine whether various brands or other items are clearly loved, on the borderline between loved and not loved, or clearly not loved and then reporting the criteria they used to make these classifications. This is similar to Study 2 of Shaver et. al (1987) in that the authors elicited the features of each type of emotion from respondents by asking them to list what they believed and felt and how they acted when they experienced the emotional state being studied.
Our three studies move from being open and exploratory to being more focused and confirmatory. Study 1 is designed to provide the widest possible lens on brand love. Rather than directing consumers to talk specifically about brands,we asked respondents about “things that they love” (excluding only other people). Casting such a wide net enables us to place brand love in context and reduce the risk of overlooking important related phenomena. In Study 2, the interviews are narrower in scope, focusing specifically on loved brands. Finally, in Study 3, we conduct a quantitative survey examining loved brands in a consumer electronics context.