Are consumer relationships with brands like personal relationships?

Professor Heiner Evanschitzky


06 June 2014   

Firms tend to think of consumers as rational beings. For example, they think that reducing the price of a product will lead to more people buying that product.  But Professor Heiner Evanschitzky argues that this is missing the point - humans strive for relationships.

Heiner’s research into consumer relationships with brands stems from what he sees as a gap in the marketing literature.  Most  literature analyses consumer switching behaviour following negative incidents.  However, Heiner argues that if you look at the number of complaints that firms receive, they are relatively low. For example, a recent study found that only 1.43 complaints per 100,000 customers were received by the airline industry. According to Heiner, consumers don’t only switch because of a major negative incident. Small negative incidents can also have a serious cumulative effect.

To back up his theory about consumer relationships the next logical step for Heiner was to consult the marketing literature; however, he drew a blank.  So, he decided instead to look at the marital disaffection literature to identify what it revealed about relationships and to investigate whether it could be applied to consumer relationships.

Heiner discovered that failing marriages go through three stages – disillusion, disaffection and finally indifference (Kersten, 1990).  There are also three likely outcomes – divorce, unhappily remaining married whilst still dissatisfied and recovering from disengagement.

To understand whether consumer relationships can be compared to personal relationships Heiner embarked on three studies.  In the first study he played recordings of interviews to students. In these interviews the subjects were asked about their relationships with brands. These recordings were then edited and all references to the brands were removed.  The revised recordings were played to a new sample, and Heiner found that every one of  the new respondents, when questioned, thought that they were listening to people talk about relationships with their spouses, not with brands!

The interviews also produced findings to reinforce  Heiner’s theory. They highlighted minor disappointments, rather than major incidents, but the relationships were shown to be declining gradually. The interviews also highlighted some conditions which affected the strength of the relationships such as personality traits and context.

Heiner conducted a further two larger studies, one diary study and one quantitative survey of an online retailer’s customers, to dig further.  The studies led Heiner to conclude that, just like in failing marriages, fading consumer relationships with brands include three stages – disillusion, disaffection and crossroads.  One of the key drivers likely to lead to committed consumers becoming disillusioned is over-promising. 

But there is some good news for marketers.  The studies showed that although movement through relationship stages can be substantial, these movements can go in both directions, meaning that relationships brands have with consumers can be restored. 

Heiner presented about his ‘relationship fading’ research at a joint event Aston Business School and Market Research Society event on 5 June, and in a recent webinar.  Heiner is the Course Director for the MSc in Market Research and Consultancy.


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MSc Market Research and Consultancy

MSc Market Research and Consultancy

This programme will equip you with an in-depth knowledge of market research principles and practice and provide you with a solid grounding in the essential skills and capabilities required to execute robust and effective market research. Accredited by the Market Research Society.

Webinar recording

Webinar recording

Watch a recording of a recent webinar where Heiner talks about 'relationship fading'.

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