Do brands fill the empty space inside usually reserved for other people? This is a question those who sell products have been asking themselves since the beginning of, well, marketing. A new study finds that on a psychological level, brands can fulfill real human needs so that during a fearful situation — while watching a horror movie, for instance — a person lacking contact with others will form a greater attachment to a branded product that sits before them. "Fear enhances the perception that the brand shared the experience with the consumer, which results in greater emotional attachment to the brand,” wrote the authors in their paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Effects of Emotion

Frequently in the course of a day, consumers come in contact with brands so it is hardly rare to encounter a brand during emotional experiences, some positive, some negative. Past research has shown that a person's judgment of brands may be biased depending on momentary feelings and moods. Because incidental negative emotions can lead to negative brand evaluations, marketers have often been wary of having their brands identified with any kind of negative emotional experiences. (This is not to say that using a rational fear of accidents, say, in an advertisement might not effectively persuade a person to buy a bike helmet.)

Two researchers from the University of British Columbia decided to explore circumstances in which a negative emotion, specifically fear, might have positive implications for a consumer’s relationship with a brand. The researchers conducted a series of four laboratory studies in which participants experienced fear while they were in the presence of an unfamiliar brand. In particular, they measured emotional brand attachment, the connection consumers feel for a brand.

They theorized that consumers undergoing a fearful experience would feel a higher emotional attachment to a brand present at the time of their experience when compared to consumers who experienced either happy, exciting, or sad emotions. Their hypothesis was based on past research including studies that have shown fear to increase eye contact and visual attention to another person present during the frightening moment. And other studies have found that when children are afraid, they visually seek out an attachment object, such as a blanket or stuffed animal, as a way to maintain a sense of security. Confident of their theory, the researchers set to work.

For their initial study, participants were told they would be watching five-minute movie clips. Before they began, a new brand of sparkling water was placed on the desk in front of them. The participants who watched a horror segment (as opposed to an action movie or sad movie or documentary) felt more emotionally attached to the brand than those experiencing either excitement, sadness, or no emotion. “Importantly, attachment formed with a brand with which participants had no previous experience,” wrote the authors of the study. “Since attachment generally takes time to form, these results suggest that fearful experiences might be beneficial in facilitating the emotional brand attachment process.”

Having discovered that no significant differences existed among the three other conditions (sadness, excitement, and lack of emotion), the researchers conducted three related experiments to provide further proof of the fear-attachment effect. "When consumers are scared, they will reach out to an available brand for comfort," noted the authors in a press release. "In this act of reaching out to share the experience, brands help relieve a consumer's sense of fear." How sad to think that in some circumstances human contact may be so easily replaced.

Source: Dunn L, Hoegg J. The Impact of Fear on Emotional Brand Attachment. Journal of Consumer Research. 2014.