American Marketing Association of Las Vegas

The Cost of Love

Does fostering “brand love” trump a company’s bottom line?

Some words and phrases are simply out of control, such as “awesome,” “you know,” “cool” and a host of others. The one that seems to have really gone ballistic (another out-of-control word) is “love.” We seem to “love” everything: pizza, brands of automobile, colors, haircuts, tofu, places and things. In short, in the current vernacular, there are few things that aren’t or can’t be loved. Just listen to any conversation—it’s all about what people love or don’t love or can’t love or have stopped loving.

What a wonderful world we live in: loving everything and assuming all those things love us back. It makes you wonder why there is still so much conflict in the world.

I was reminded of this current “love” phenomenon recently when I was in Vienna, teaching a graduate class on marketing communications and branding. Vienna is a beautiful city with wonderful people and great food, the best mass transportation system in the world, some really great wines, spectacular museums, historic buildings and so on. Vienna really is a city that one can “love.” Maybe it’s not like “loving” Virginia, but it’s still right up there.

But that’s not the point of this column.

In class, the students and I were talking about brand preferences and how those were developed and maintained. One student volunteered that she “just loved Red Bull.” That’s not an uncommon feeling in Vienna since many people there believe it is a global brand, ignoring the fact that it was invented in Thailand. But I digress.

In addition to “loving Red Bull,” the student said she was “passionate” about the Red Bull brand. She followed the brand on Facebook, tweeted about it on Twitter, watched for Red Bull activities on YouTube, and attended Red Bull events. In short, she “just loved the Red Bull brand.”

Having identified a brand fanatic, I pressed on. I asked her how much Red Bull she consumes in an average week. Her somewhat surprising answer was: “I don’t drink Red Bull. None of my friends do, either. We’re not ‘into’ sports drinks.”

“Whoa,” I said, pulling out a typical American colloquialism. “You love Red Bull but you don’t use it? How can that be?”

“Easy,” she said. “I love the brand but hate the product.”

So the student loves the Red Bull brand but dislikes the product. In fact, she doesn’t or won’t use or consume it, and none of her friends do, either.

At the end of the class I was still stunned that she loved the brand but hated the product.

I started wondering how many more people like her are in the market. If it’s “a lot” (another one of those overused phrases), then Red Bull has a problem. Can Red Bull continue to just “entertain” and “excite” and build “love” without, at some point, generating a product sale? All that “love generation” costs money, and even fat margins can’t keep paying the bills with too much “love” but not enough sales.

The issue, of course, is that it’s quite likely many other brands have a similar problem. They just don’t know that the problem exists.

Brands spend tons of money to build “brand love” but then don’t get product sales in return. Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought the brand spent money to build brand usage, not just to get “brand love,” whatever that might be.

Oh, I know. All of the current branding furor is on generating “likes” on Facebook or retweets on Twitter. Or getting exposure on You Tube or followers on Instagram. Or trying to “trend” their brand or their current campaign on one or more of the hundreds of other new social media forms. Most seem to be in pursuit of the ultimate, or perhaps penultimate, goal: generating “love marks” (whatever those are).

So is all this “love” furor a matter of semantics, where many terms have simply lost their meaning? Or is it a more severe situation, one where brands are spending bushels of dollars to entertain, excite or build “buzz” but not much else? Certainly not sales or usage.

I guess it all comes down to determining the cost of love. Or, more importantly, how long can brands continue to entertain people who can buy but likely never will? I guess if you can keep your margins up, it is still possible to “buy love,” whatever the cost. But at the end of the day, do you, as a brand or marketing manager, want to build love or sales? It seems to be that basic. I suspect the board and the shareholders would vote for the latter. At least you can take dollars to the bank. In my experience, banks will not allow you to deposit “love” in your account in exchange for money.

For more on the concept of brand love, check out “Can Consumers Really Have Love Relationships with Brands? (I Think Not.)” in the December 2013 issue of Marketing News​.

This was originally published in the September/October 2014 issue of Marketing Insights.


Author bio: Don E. Schultz is a professor (emeritus-in-service) of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Categories: Branding.