Psychologists Examine the Fanboy

Examine any internet forum or blogs and their comment sections and you’ll find countless people with a loyalty to one brand or another that get very agitated by any criticism. Now researchers have suggested consumers may effectively be mixing up their own self-image with that of the brand.

A research project involving staff in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Hong Kong, published in ScienceDirect, began by finding whether participants had a strong brand loyalty to particular products or companies, a measure the researchers dubbed high “self-brand connections” or SBC. They then tracked the self-esteem of the participants as the brands suffered good or bad publicity. The research likens the effects of commercial brands on some consumers to the way sports fans live and die by the performance of their chosen team.

According to the results, the higher the SBC, the bigger the drop of self-esteem when the relevant brands did badly. The researchers conclude that this isn’t simply a case of consumers having a strong relationship with a brand, but rather from a psychological perspective the brand becoming an extension of the self. Therefore when a brand does badly, loyal supports feel personally affected and challenged, and in turn more defensive. In effect, they argue, defending a brand is an extension of defending yourself.

I think there’s something to the conclusions, though to me it sounds more like an example of cognitive dissonance: the practice — and resulting problems — of holding two contradictory ideas at once. It’s often been noted that people who make what prove to be bad decisions attempt to play down or ignore the consequences rather than have to admit they chose poorly. In the case of brands, buyers may well be acting defensively and dismissing problems because they don’t want to believe they chose the wrong product.