The Horror! Feelings of fear enhance attachment to brands

Lea Dunn
Lea Dunn

Seen any scary movies lately? What you probably didn’t see, amid the spine-chilling gasps and blood-curdling screams, were a bunch of product placements.

While any modern romance, action or comedy is chockablock with brands that pay good money to hitch on to the positive emotions such films evoke, horror flicks are largely devoid of such commercial displays.

It seems to make sense. After all, who would want to buy the jar of Skippy they spy in a demon-haunted kitchen, the pair of Converse being chased by a knife-wielding maniac, or the Chevy Malibu fleeing a zombie apocalypse? Why would you associate your brand with the stressful emotion of fear?

It turns out that marketers have no reason to be afraid of fear, according to research by Lea Dunn, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Dunn’s studies reveal that being in a state of fear can create an immediate and virtually personal attachment to an unfamiliar brand—an attachment that does not develop in people experiencing sadness, happiness or excitement.

“Unlike other emotions, we find that one intense experience of fear can actually promote an emotional attachment to a brand,” she says, “even a brand you’ve never seen before.”

Film studies

Under normal circumstances, emotional attachment to a brand, like a human relationship, develops over time. But Dunn was curious to know whether the experience of intense emotions might accelerate this attachment.

To investigate, she and co-author Joandrea Hoegg of the University of British Columbia designed a suite of studies, each ostensibly seeking unrelated film and branded product reviews.

They began by asking participants to watch short clips of movies representing one of four genres: action, comedy, tragedy or horror. Off to the side of the video monitor, they placed an unopened bottle of an unfamiliar brand of flavored fizzy water. This bottle innocently awaited the participants’ subsequent brand assessment.

The actual intent of the film views was to trigger distinct emotions: excitement from the action movies, happiness from the comedies, sadness from the tragedies, and fear from the horror flicks.

When Dunn and Hoegg measured the participants’ attachment to the foreign beverage brand, they found that only those in the fear condition—who had watched the scary movies—demonstrated an immediate emotional connection to the brand. No such connection occurred in those who felt sadness, happiness or excitement.

Share the scare

The authors repeated the study with several variations. But the result held up regardless of whether people touched, tasted or just left alone the branded beverage while watching a horror movie. Its mere presence when they were scared led to a significantly higher emotional attachment.

In related studies, Dunn also determined that the emotional attachment facilitated by fear applies only to a visually branded product, not an unbranded product in generic packaging.

“This tells us that brands have human characteristics,” she says, “that we can share an experience with a brand that we can’t share with a product.”

And when, in another related study, Dunn first induced participants to think about social connections, being in a state of fear no longer had any effect on brand attachment.

“It’s really about that need for social connection in the moment,” she adds. “The way we often cope with fear is to affiliate with other people. We want to share the experience, reach out and grab somebody’s hand.”

But when there’s no hand to grab, a brand can play a similar role. That’s why Dunn’s study participants, when frightened, were so quick to connect emotionally with a brand of fizzy water that was their sole companion in the room.

Personification of brands

Thinking of our relationships to brands in human terms is nothing new. Like people, we perceive brands as—metaphorically—fun or serious, brash or subdued, warm or cool, flashy or comforting, and myriad other traits from the palette of human personality.

“But we’re finding that the relationship is more than just metaphorical,” Dunn says. “We look to brands for the same things we look for in people: comfort, companionship, competence, for example. We make actual, psychological connections to brands.”

In another variation of the movie clip study, Dunn asked people to comment on the unfamiliar brand’s personality. In the fear condition alone did participants repeatedly use the terms “sincerity,” “security” and “competence” to describe the brand’s attributes.

“These are the kinds of personality traits you would want in somebody with whom you are sharing a frightening experience,” Dunn adds. “People are not only forming attachments, they are also superimposing the personality traits that they find most important in the situation.”

Brand matters

Developing rock-solid emotional attachment between consumer and brand is a marketer’s ultimate objective. Consumers who feel this bond with a brand prove to be more loyal and less concerned about price.

Dunn believes her study offers lessons beyond the factor of fear in creating this valuable emotional attachment to brands.

“Marketers should seriously consider both the personality embodied in a brand and the context in which it is experienced,” she says. “They should also consider that a brand relationship can be a real relationship, similar to relationship to another person.”

And maybe, marketers of movie product placements, it’s time to overcome that fear phobia.

The Impact of Fear on Emotional Brand Attachment” is published in the June 2014 Journal of Consumer Research.