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When Flirting Increases Loyalty

When consumers “flirt” with another brand, it can strengthen ties to their old favorite


Whether you desire to be a good long-term friend, a respected leader, a loving partner, or to have a successful brand, you must inspire loyalty in others. But what type of behavior inspires loyalty? A few answers may come to mind, such as being trustworthy, supporting others’ initiatives, being willing to sacrifice your own self-interest to improve another person’s well-being, or confiding secrets and sharing personal stories. When people are asked what it means to be loyal in a relationship, the words they most commonly mention are trust, respect, intimacy, honesty, help, and support.

Somewhat surprisingly, another behavior that inspires loyalty in others is flirting, at least when it comes to brand loyalty. Rather than leading to trouble, as it does in personal relationships, this type of infidelity is often beneficial in the context of consumer behavior, my research suggests. When consumers who are in committed brand relationships flirt with other brands, they become even more attached to their primary brand. They are then willing to spend more money to purchase that brand’s products, and more frequently.

Loyalty is the hallmark of strong relationships. Knowing that someone will be there for us when the going gets tough provides us with great security. This security, in turns, makes us happy and satisfied. However, building loyalty requires work. Even the most loyal relationships are open and vulnerable to potential betrayal and conflict. When we experience such negative experiences, we may approach new experiences with our guard up. This makes sense from a survival-instinct perspective, but it causes us to miss out on rewarding experiences with others. To avoid such negative outcomes, we generally do not engage in behaviors that could jeopardize loyalty, such as flirting with others. For instance, in romantic relationships, the presence of available and attractive romantic alternatives can decrease one’s romantic commitment to a current partner. That’s in part why people who are committed to their romantic partners often devalue the attractiveness of alternative partners or shield themselves against temptation by ignoring these people.

Similarly, conventional wisdom suggests that having a positive experience with a competing brand, through simple encounter or learning of its positive attributes, can decrease a consumers’ loyalty. Indeed, marketers frequently give consumers free samples of their products, offer promotions and price reductions, and inundate them with advertisements in hopes of luring them away from competitors. Marketers might also draw clear comparisons with the competition to put their products in a better light. Take Apple’s notorious 1984 advertisement. You may remember the clear picture that Apple painted of Windows’ users—they were unhip, corporate drones that loved boring beige-shaded boxes and Excel spreadsheets. Conversely, Apple was the cool, savvy product for young people doing creative work and fighting the system.

Brands often provide the primary points of differentiation between competitive offerings, and as such they can be critical to the success of companies. Thus, organizations regularly make large investments to develop and maintain their brands and to build a network of committed customers. But the strategic choices companies make to achieve these goals may not have the consequences they expect.

Rather than falling back on the strategies typically used to create brand loyalty (such as offering discounts or criticizing potential competitors), it may be more beneficial to let consumers flirt with them. Brand flirting refers to casual interest in or short-term experimentation with a competitor to a brand to which a consumer is loyal. Brand flirting can take a variety of forms, from evaluating some brand characteristics positively (akin to noticing the attractive characteristics of someone other than your current romantic partner) to using a product and having a pleasant short-lived experience with it (akin to having a late-night drink with that new person). Flirting with brands is surprisingly common; consumers in the most committed brand relationships often appreciate other products and brands.

In research that I conducted in collaboration with Mike Norton, Irene Consiglio, and Daniella Kupor, we found that, under the right conditions, flirting with an attractive competing brand can in fact make loyal consumers even more committed to their usual brand.

In one of our studies, participants were presented with four favorable features of a soft drink and asked to evaluate each of them. Participants who were loyal to Coca-Cola, and who were asked to rated favorable features of Pepsi, said they intended to consume more of their favorite soft drink in the upcoming week, as compared to loyal Coca-Cola participants who rated the same favorable features of Coca-Cola. We reached the same findings with Pepsi loyalists relative to Coke. Appreciating a competitive brand’s favorable characteristics induced loyal participants to want to consume greater amounts of their favorite brand in the near future.

In a follow-up study, we found that such brand flirting affects real behavior. Participants in a control condition watched a 30-second advertisement for their non-preferred soft-drink brand. Participants in the experimental condition had a choice: they could watch either a 10-minute advertisement for their favorite brand or a 30-second advertisement for a competing brand in the same product category. As we expected, most participants in the experimental condition chose to watch the much shorter advertisement – that is, they chose to flirt with a brand competing with the brand to which they were loyal.  We used the same 30-second ad in the experimental and control conditions, namely a 30-second advertisement for their non-preferred soft drink (either Coca-Cola or Pepsi). As additional compensation for their participation in the survey, participants were told that they would be entered in a lottery to win a two-liter bottle of a soft drink. Participants indicated whether they would like to receive a bottle of Coca-Cola or Pepsi if they won the lottery. The results? Participants expressed a greater preference for their favorite brand when they chose to watch an ad for a competing product as compared to when they were forced to do so, thus showing the benefits to the favored brand of perceived initiation of flirting.

Why does this effect occur? Research on interpersonal relationships reveals that flirting with a person to whom one is uncommitted elicits excitement and other positive feelings, as it is often playful, pleasant, and arousing. In the context of brand relationships, flirting can similarly elicit excitement, as using or admiring a brand other than one’s favorite may be a fresh and arousing experience. This arousal can be transferred to the favored brand, resulting in even greater affiliation with the brand and a greater desire to consume it.

Every year, marketers spend enormous sums of money in their attempts to lure customers away from the competition. For instance, brands often try to win new customers by comparing their product favorably relative to the competition. Our research suggests that successful attempts to gain the attention and interest of consumers may backfire by increasing consumers’ involvement with the brands to which they are committed.

Flirting is a ubiquitous activity people engage in for the very fact they are human. And though experience may have taught us that flirting often leads to trouble in close relationships, when we are loyal to our partners, friends, jobs, or given brands, flirting with the competition may in fact increase our commitment to them.

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