The Psychology Of Brand And Facial Recognition: One Mechanism Makes Us See Coca-Cola And Humans The Same

Coca-Cola
When we see brands like Coca-Cola or Pepsi, we identify them with the same mind mechanisms used when we perceive people's faces. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Many of us may glance at a glowing Apple on the back of a laptop screen and sense innovation, an artsy-hip kid, or Steve Jobs. Or perhaps you’re repulsed by a Coca-Cola label due to the company’s crimes in third-world countries, similarly to how you might avoid eye contact with an enemy. That’s because humans often perceive brands with the same psychological mechanism that’s used to recognize faces, according to a new survey out of the Institute for Experimental Business Psychology at Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany.

In the study, the researchers had participants view 16 common brands, including Coca-Cola, Rolex, Porsche, and Apple. They then measured their reaction to 18 computer-generated human faces and compared and contrasted the psychological mechanisms behind recognition. The participants were asked to evaluate both the brands and the faces based on trustworthiness, care, strength, or assertiveness — emotions or attributes that can be used to describe humans, but also companies.

They found that the participants relied on two main aspects in identifying their feelings about both brand and face: trustworthiness and the impression of strength — both of which can be associated with detecting intentions, whether they are good or bad, the authors concluded.

“The results of this study enhance the findings of previous research that in many ways brands are perceived similarly as humans,” the authors wrote. “This yields a fruitful basis for further investigations on how brand perception is formed and can be influenced.”

This is why celebrities are used to advertise certain brands as a way to increase trust for the product. Or also perhaps why negative figures, like Subway Jared, are booted from campaigns immediately after breaking public trust.

“In advertising campaigns the choice of a brand face that represents a personality that is coherent with the intended brand personality may make up the difference between a strong and a weak brand, and even may have an impact on economic success of brand management,” the authors wrote.

While the study is mainly meant to help brand designers come up with effective advertising campaigns, we might be able to glean more from it on a psychological level. We can gauge our own reactions to certain brands better if we realize that ads often manipulate us with celebrity faces to build good impressions of trust and strength — when in reality there may be negative aspects of the brand beneath the surface. The face of Coca-Cola — the polar bears — may be adorable, but the company itself is not.

Source: Lange A, Höger R. Do Brands and Faces share the same Perceptual Space? World Review of Business Research. 2015.

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