Brand Psychology

October 23, 2007

Positive Illusions

I have a friend who has an excessively deep passion for BMWs. There is just something about a BMW – over any other car that drives him (pun intended), and I don’t understand it. In fact, to me his passion seems inflated to the point of distortion – where he believes a BMW’s performance is far beyond its true ability. Is this bad?

There is an interesting phenomenon in close relationships called “positive illusions,” which is generally defined as an individual having an idealistic distortion about their relationship and/or partner. In other words, someone might report that (1) their relationship is actually in better shape than it truly is, and/or (2) that they have inflated positive views of their partner. For example, in marriage, most people report their relationship as better than average, and their partner as better than the average partner. Individuals also underestimate their chances of divorce, compared to the population divorce likelihood (contact us for references).

Are these positive illusions in relationships misleading – guiding individuals down the wrong relationship path? Not always. In fact, these illusions can be adaptive and often serve a relational maintenance function. By thinking that your relationship and/or partner is better than it actually is, you are more likely to invest more in the relationship, stay committed, report being satisfied, and engage in pro-relationship behaviors – this all in turn can influence your partner to respond in kind. Things are best when both members in the relationship experience positive illusions – where they each feel they got a great deal.Bmw_obsession_3

So let’s get back to this BMW passion – is it unfounded and unhealthy? Not necessarily. My friend’s positive illusions about BMW help him deepen his commitment in a relationship that he deems important. Additionally, if BMW experiences positive illusions about my friend and their relationship, BMW will likely engage in pro-relationship behaviors (e.g., maybe a periodic call to check in with him), which will in turn make my friend feel more satisfied with and committed to the relationship.

On the other hand, my friend’s passion becomes unhealthy when it is placed on a relationship and friend that fails to reciprocate, and does not share similar feelings. In this case, my friend will ultimately realize that he doesn’t get what he thought he did in his relationship with BMW, and he will begin shopping elsewhere.

So what’s the punch line? Companies and brands need to think relationally. For example, companies run a great danger when they overly focus their attention on expansion, growth, and new business. By doing this, they can fail to recognize the already existing, and potentially mutually beneficial positive illusions experienced by current partners, and they run the risk of losing those relationships. BMW must embrace my friend’s idealistic distortion and make it a reality. This requires BMW and other companies to know their partners and friends – to understand their thoughts and feelings. This requires communication, contact, and shared intimacy. By companies doing this, they themselves will develop mutually beneficial positive illusions. And with this, both company and partner can dodge that oh-so threatening divorce rate, and live happily ever after.

by Michael Reiter

September 16, 2007

Relational Maintenance

Much talk goes on about how brands can attract new business, or how to “save” brands when things go wrong. In truth, these are real concerns. But what do we do when things go well? Do we stick to the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Perhaps, but in a relationship both parties must actively behave in ways to maintain the relationship. Relationship scientists have termed this behavior “relational maintenance,” which is broadly defined as individuals keeping a relationship in existence and maintaining the relationship’s current state or condition (see Dindia & Emmers-Sommer, 2006).

Identified strategies to maintain relationships include: “positivity” – having pleasant and cheerful interactions; “openness” – direct, open communication; “assurances” – implicitly and explicitly reassuring the other about the future of the relationship; and, “sharing tasks” – shockingly, this refers to actually doing things together. Again, we know from 16 years of relational maintenance research that these behaviors are ingredients for healthy, lasting relationships.


So why don’t companies use a “relational maintenance” framework? Imagine an organization where the focus was to ensure positivity with people in all interactions, from the store, to the phone, to advertising. Imagine the organization whose priority it was to assure individuals of their lasting relationship – e.g., that they would not unexpectedly go “belly up.” This company would also be open and forthright in communication, and will actually figure out ways to spend quality time with people.

If an organization made decisions using relational a maintenance framework to guide behavior, their relationships would be life-long relationships. I also propose that companies actually TELL people that this is their framework (openness). Doing things in a relationship that you think will help the relationship works a lot better when both parties are aware of why each is acting a certain way.

The fact is that relational maintenance does not just keep the relationship from “going south,” but it actually helps deepen one another’s commitment to the relationship. Companies that lose business do so by making poor choices, but they also do so by not actively maintaining those relationships that are already good.

By Michael Reiter

September 03, 2007

Relational Glossary Term: Dysthymic Brand

The Psychological Background:

The term “dysthymia” comes from Dysthymic Disorder, a mental disorder that affects 5 to 6 percent of all persons in the general population (Sadock & Sadock, 2003). Dysthymia is a mood disorder in which an individual chronically reports a mildly depressed mood for at least 2 years, in addition to other symptoms. However, this is distinct from Major Depression, which is characterized by a severely depressed mood for as short a time as 2 weeks (also in addition to other symptoms).

Those with Major Depression often seek treatment due to great emotional pain, a sense of hopelessness, feelings of isolation, and disturbed eating and sleeping. While individuals with dysthymia are also not “happy,” the “pain” is often not so great that they feel the need to seek treatment. As a result, they might go for years feeling “sub-par” without doing anything about it.

The Application:

Do you have a Dysthymic Brand? By this we ask, does your brand experience continual sub-par depression, or does it continually just lack that connection with people? Like with people, the danger with a Dysthymic Brand is that the perceived “pain” is not so great that brand managers see the need to do something new, when in fact, much needs to be done.

Tell us about your Dysthymic Brands.

by Michael Reiter

August 28, 2007

Expectencies - A Key to Relational Healing

One of the most influential movements in psychology in the past forty years has been that of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). What is CBT? It’s the theory that one’s thinking (cognitions) influences their behavior, and visa versa. Perhaps the most interesting application of CBT is with close, intimate relationships.

The posts below *scream* CBT from a relationships perspective. Let’s take Karen’s “Great Expectations and Broken Promises” experience with Target. Karen hit the nail on the head! People come to all relationships with what relationship scientists term “expectancies,” which are defined as “predictions about the future status of the relationship or how the partner is likely to behave” (see Epstein & Baucom, 2002). Karen had an established set of expectancies about how her good friend Target would behave, and when these were challenged, their relationship experienced distress. To be fair, Target too, has a set of expectancies about Karen, and when these are challenged (e.g., she doesn’t come to their sale), the relationship again experiences distress.

And thus, a relationship impasse ensues. However, this occurs not when partners have different sets of expectancies, but when they cannot effectively communicate with one another about their shared differences, and establish mutually agreeable ways of behaving in the future (we know this from 40 years of relationships research). Karen and Target MUST sit down and explore one another’s expectancies for how each is to behave in their relationship. Only then can they better understand their current and future behavior. This communication will not just help heal prior “transgressions,” but will help further deepen their commitment to one another.

The magnitude and influence of one’s expectancies cannot be understated, and are further illustrated by Evan’s “Consistency & Expectations” piece below where he comments on a restaurant’s inconsistent behavior with patrons, “The problem is that I now expect it [a phone call from the restaurant], and when the call doesn't come, I feel let down.” Again, expectancies influence how we think about our relationships and how we behave – it is unlikely that Evan will return to this restaurant due to a belief system he has established.

And how do we change these belief systems? Through friend/partner communication. YES, I propose people and brands actually speak about expectancies for one another’s behavior. Pick up the phone! Ask to meet with a manager! Ask to meet one another at a coffee shop! Hard to imagine? Perhaps. But it is the way to heal and deepen a relationship

What are your expectancies?

by Michael Reiter