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RISMEDIA, August 31, 2010—People evaluate brands in the same way they instinctively perceive and judge one another—in terms of warmth and competence—and these judgments are highly predictive of brand purchase intent and loyalty, according to a recently released study.

The study was conducted by The Relational Capital Group and a team of researchers at Princeton University led by Drs. Susan T. Fiske and Nicolas O. Kervyn. The study evaluated the impact of warmth and competence perceptions on purchase intent and loyalty toward eight national brands—McDonalds, Burger King, BP, Shell, Tropicana, Minute Maid, Tylenol and Advil.

“This study shows that purchase intent and brand loyalty are heavily influenced by consumers’ perceptions of the warmth and competence of those brands,” said Kervyn.

According to Chris Malone, chief advisory officer of The Relational Capital Group, this insight has the potential to reshape the way companies manage and market their brands.

“Since the emergence of mass market brands, products and services have been defined by their features and benefits,” he said. “This new study suggests that features and benefits are simply an incomplete subset of the broader categories of warmth and competence that consumers perceive and judge brands against.”

People were the first brands, faces the first logos
According to Fiske and Kervyn, social psychologists deduced over the past several decades that as humans struggled for survival, they had to develop an ability to make two kinds of judgments with great speed and sufficient accuracy. The first was discerning the intentions of others toward them—their warmth. The second was to judge the ability of others to carry out their intentions—their competence. Through studies across 36 countries, researchers have validated warmth and competence as universal dimensions of human social perception. They found that warmth includes traits like friendliness, helpfulness, sincerity, trustworthiness and honesty, while competence is reflected by traits such as intelligence, skill, creativity, efficiency and effectiveness.

“We’ve found strong statistical correlation between consumers’ perceptions of each brand’s warmth and competence and their intent to purchase and remain loyal to that brand,” said Fiske. “These findings are consistent with other studies we’ve conducted that validate the influence and predictive power of warmth and competence on human behavior. In effect, it shows that people were the first brands and faces were the first logos.”

The study also found that all brands studied fall short of consumer expectations on two critical warmth-related dimensions that are highly predictive of brand loyalty: “honest and trustworthy” and “acts with your best interests in mind.”

“Without those traits, genuine human trust and lasting brand loyalty are impossible,” said Malone. “It seems that in the eyes of consumers, the polices and practices of many companies consistently suggest that the company is primarily focused on advancing its own self-interest and can’t be trusted to do what’s in the best interest of the consumer, especially when no one is watching.

“Some highly successful companies like Zappos and USAA instinctively employ warmth and competence principles in building legendary brand loyalty,” said Malone. “However, the warmth and competence model and its potential have been virtually unknown outside the field of social psychology. Now companies and brands have the opportunity to consciously apply the model to build more durable and lasting consumer relationships.”

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