As part of the World Retail Congress, WPP and the Brand Asset Valuator (BAV) recently released their Most Loved Retailers report, which explores the most loved brands across the world using their Love+ metric. The report starts by pointing out that love is complex and that there are multiple kinds of love. It measures four kinds of love, ranging from being solid and dependable (they call it “lean on me”) to a yearning kind of love (they call it “got to get you into my life”), all with very enjoyable musical puns. Then, based on more than 10,000 Australian respondents, the report lists the top brands across those four types of love. Big Australian brands like Bunnings and JB Hi-Fi show up on the lists across multiple types of love, while others, like IKEA (inspirational love) and Mecca (aspirational love), show up only for specific types. It is good news for the retailers who made it onto these lists, as it shows they are not only top of mind with consumers, but also elicit a range of strong positive associations.
The question is what tangible value being loved has for retailers and brand managers. Undoubtedly, the brands in the most-loved lists are successful retailers. JB Hi-Fi, Woolworths, and Coles are all prominent on the lists, and have all had successful performance through the pandemic. Bunnings is an Australian staple. The success of international brands on the list, like Amazon, IKEA, Apple, eBay, and Nike can’t be disputed.
But does this mean other brands should strive to be more loved? Does it mean that an up-and-coming brand should focus on love as a way to grow? To answer this, we need to consider which comes first: love or success/growth. In other words, is Amazon disrupting global retail because it is a loved brand? Or, is it a loved brand because of how successfully it has embedded itself into consumers’ lives? Below, I’ll summarise some of the research on brand love to try to unpack what impact it may have for retailers.
What does brand love really mean?
One of the first challenges of assessing the role of brand love is defining it. This has been approached in many ways, from comparing it to interpersonal love to distinguishing the emotions of love from the relationship itself. Complicating things further, popular topics like brand engagement involve similar explorations of the emotional, mental, and behavioural connections consumers have to brands. This makes it hard to distinguish the unique aspects of brand love.
A popular academic study1 in the Journal of Marketing tried to address these challenges. The authors conducted multiple studies combining both qualitative and quantitative methods. One of their first conclusions was that brand love isn’t something captured by a single definition. Instead, they suggest thinking of it as a list of attributes. Through a rigorous process, they developed, tested, and validated seven such attributes making up brand love, including things like passion-driven behaviours, the integration between a brand and an individual’s sense of self, positive emotions, and the development of a long-term relationship.
So while the Most Loved Retailers report rightly distinguishes between different types of brand love, academic literature like the study in the Journal of Marketing goes even further, suggesting there are multiple components and even sub-components that make up different types of love. For now, let’s summarise that brand love is a complex amalgamation of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours consumers have towards brands.
The next step is even more complex.
Does brand love lead to positive outcomes?
Most Loved Retailers discusses how brand love can lead to positive outcomes because it represents consumers having an emotional connection to the brand. This could make consumers more likely to buy first from that brand and recommend it to others. Academic research supports this. The journal article I referenced above went on to test how brand love is associated with outcomes such as loyalty and intended word-of-mouth, and found significant correlations. Multiple other studies have found similar results.
So there certainly is some evidence that brand love is at least associated with reported loyalty and advocacy. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that becoming more loved will lead to higher loyalty or advocacy, at least not for every brand.
There are two reasons for this. The first is the issue around whether these relationships are causal or just correlational. That is, does love help a brand to grow, or by growing (through good products, advertising etc.) does a brand become more loved – or even just more known? If you’ve read Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow, or follow the research from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, you’re probably familiar with the idea of double jeopardy and the importance of mental and physical availability. Something similar may be happening with results around brand love. Consumers are exposed to larger brands more frequently, so those brands are more likely to be top of mind when consumers are asked which brands they love. This makes it hard to say for sure whether brands consumers say they love are genuinely the ones they love the most, or just the ones they have top of mind.
The second reason it’s hard to say whether more brand love leads to more loyalty is the difference between stated intentions and actual behaviour. In fairness, this is a challenge for all survey research. While consumers might say they love a brand, and then say they intend to be loyal to that brand, they don’t necessarily follow through.
I’ll give a personal example to illustrate. If you asked me which brand I love the most, I would probably say Jordan, meaning the basketball shoes. Lumped in there are my associations with Michael Jordan himself, watching Space Jam as a kid, and still imagining myself dunking. Yet, across my wardrobe of past purchases, Jordan takes up only 3 out of 8 pairs of shoes. So while I would say I love Jordan, and advocate for the brand, my actual behaviour doesn’t match that. This is just one example; other consumers are legitimately loyal to a single brand, particularly if we think about sporting teams. Yet for many retail brands, the link between love and loyalty is far less than perfect. As Sharp said, there is much evidence that customers tend to buy from multiple brands – and this applies across many industries and categories.
What should retailers do?
So, what does this all mean for retailers? Is brand love a beneficial thing for retailers to seek? It depends on whom you ask, and it may be more beneficial in some categories than others. On the one hand, consumers saying they love your brand is at least an indication they know your brand and have positive associations with it. This may lead to some positive outcomes around preference and advocacy. On the other hand, brand love may be more of an outcome of size and existing loyalty than something that creates these outcomes.
So here’s my take, weighing up the evidence for both sides. Brand love can be beneficial, and it’s certainly better to be loved than hated or, potentially worse, unknown. But in many categories, love alone isn’t enough to make a brand successful. The retail fundamentals still matter, and probably more so than being loved. So just like Tina Turner, retailers should ask themselves what love has to do with their brand or industry. For some, brand love may be what separates you from the pack. For many others, a better answer may come from a different Turner song. Rather than focusing on being loved, you may find it more beneficial to try to be “simply the best” and “better than all the rest”. If you become the legitimate best option in your category, you may not need to be loved, or you may even find you end up being loved as a result.
1 The article is titled “Brand Love” and the lead author was Rajeev Batra.