Uncovering the Drivers of Attachment

Five years ago, when we launched UTA Brand Studio, we built our strategy around a central premise: that attachment was a superior metric to use for designing brand experiences. Back then, attachment was a relatively new concept in branding literature. But we were drawn to this newly defined relationship between people and brands. Attachment was a more intuitive benchmark for our team—a benchmark that provided more opportunities to translate strategic insight into design ideas and creative content.

Attachment enables productive branding conversations. It forces us to think about audience engagement, with a goal of making those audiences feel they have to have a brand close to them. It pushes you to think about creating experiences that make consumers feel they can’t live without the brand. It focuses on the core values of a consumer and how a brand could reflect and serve those values. In short, brand attachment drives our creative teams to empathize with target audiences and relate to them through the lens of beliefs and values.

Earlier this year, we launched an ongoing quantitative study designed to answer two key questions. First, how stable is brand attachment? Most of our work to date has been quantifying attachment for a specific brand at a specific moment in time, and we’ve been curious to know how much brand attachment might fluctuate over time. We also wanted to know how much current events and societal influences affect attachment scores.

Second, we wanted to explore the relationship between values and attachment. How much does our value orientation influence attachment towards specific brands?

The basic premise is simple: survey American consumers once a month using the same “basket” of 25 leading brands across various industries to create a bellwether average and also track changes in highly-attached brands over time. The 25 brands we selected had to meet three criteria. They had to have been prominently ranked elsewhere on more than one published brand equity study. They could not be gender-specific (i.e. cosmetics brands) or serve a narrow slice of a market (i.e. home improvement). And, they had to have a brand image that broadly appealed to a majority of consumers, even if access to the brand was largely aspirational for many people (i.e. a luxury car brand).

We assessed each respondent’s value orientation, and by capturing this data, uncovered a structural relationship between strength of brand attachment and an orientation toward one of ten universal belief systems.

This fall, we will be publishing detailed findings. In the interim, we wanted to share some intriguing insights.

Attachment Scores Fluctuate Systematically

We see that attachment scores fluctuate over time more frequently and variably than we anticipated. However, like the stock market, scores fluctuate systematically. This is to say that the scores for most brands included in our index rise and fall in sync with the rise and fall of the index itself.

For example, our market basket score dropped 7 points during the month of July, but the relative positions of brands in the index remained fairly constant and no brand gained ground during that month. Further, like a stock index, the brands we studied have differing levels of volatility. When the index rises or falls, some brand scores rise and fall at greater degrees of change than others (much like the beta in the stock price of a security).

This finding is significant because it reminds us that attachment doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that the absolute attachment score of a brand at one moment in time is almost irrelevant. It is much more important to consider the strength of attachment in the context of how consumers attach to brands overall. For example, our research suggests that American consumers were less connected to brands in July than they were in June. This makes sense given that it was the height of summer, we had two noisy and contentious political conventions saturating the media, and the world reeled from several terrorist attacks. Without seeing this bigger picture, a brand manager could easily become distressed to see a month-over-month decline in their brand attachment score.

The Value Connection

As I mentioned above, every brand on our index experienced a decline in attachment scores in July. The brands that fared the best were correlated with a “security” value orientation. The security orientation revolves around goals of safety, harmony, stability, and family relationships. Amazon, Facebook and Disney were three brands with above average attachment scores that strongly correlate to a security-driven value system. Unsurprisingly, these brands were less sensitive to the drop in the index. All three remained in the top five slots of our 25-brand market basket.

But the most interesting insight gained from linking attachment to value systems is finding new ways to diagnose a brand’s health based on the spread of values correlated to attachment.

The figure below illustrates:

Schwartz Values Map

It is from the published work of Dr. Shalom Schwartz on Human Value Theory. Dr. Schwartz has found that the ten values exist on a wheel-like spectrum. Typically, this spectrum works in contrasts. So, a person who has a strong hedonism orientation (love of pleasure or sensuous gratification) will usually have a significantly weak benevolence orientation (preservation and enhancement of other people). This contrast has been proven again and again in numerous global studies. It’s not to say that hedonists aren’t charitable, but rather to say that the hedonistic instinct is more prevalent than the benevolent one.

Our research finds this same pattern and it is reflected in brand attachment scores—attachment rises and falls with greater amplification around a cluster of related values. We’ve also found that some brands in our index have a broad and fragmented spread of value orientations (meaning there is a structural relationship that is unclustered). These brands tend to have lower overall attachment scores and also tend to be more volatile to fluctuations in brand attachment systematically.

Our work in this area is still new and ongoing. While we have more studies on the way, the message is clear: brand attachment can be nurtured by a deeper, values-driven connection to consumers. Our upcoming studies will explore the optimal ways brands can signal those connections and the disruptors that threaten them.

Feature Photo Credit: Studio Firma via Stocksy

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