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How the Science of Love Can Make You a Smarter Marketer

What the world's best brands have in common with thriving relationships

If you’ve watched your share of romantic comedies—and I’m not ashamed to say that I have—you know that there’s a certain formula involved.

Step #1: The protagonists get off to a bad start.  

Step #2: The two proceed to date other, usually better looking alternatives, only to have these relationships blow up in their face.

Step #3: Between misadventures, the protagonists confide in a wise, outspoken and occasionally flamboyant best friend.   

Oh, and there’s one more thing.  In a romantic comedy it’s clear to everyone except the couple themselves that they’re destined to be together.  This obvious piece of information rarely dawns on them before the movie is three-quarters of the way through.  And even then, they’re not quite sure how it happened.  To them, love is a mystery. 

Fortunately, the rest of us don’t have to remain quite so clueless.  

Over the past few decades, social scientists have made extraordinary advances in understanding the dynamics of human relationships.  We’ve become a lot smarter at predicting whether people will hit it off, at identifying couples with the best chances of staying together, and at spotting marriages headed for divorce.  To the experts in the field, love is rarely an accident.

So what’s that got to do with marketing?  In a word: everything. 

It’s because the same neural circuits that light up when we connect with another person also fire when we find ourselves thinking about a favorite brand.  The psychological experience of love is grounded in a common physiological language.

Yet surprisingly, few of the insights psychologists have uncovered about the science of love have made their way to the field of marketing. 

Here are some of the highlights of what we’ve learned.

1. We Love What Makes Us Grow

As humans, we have a psychological need to enhance our skills and improve our competence.  When we click with someone new, we increase our interpersonal resources, gain new perspectives and enhance our identity.   

In short, we grow.

The self-expansion we experience in a new relationship is often exhilarating and intense, especially at the beginning, when every interaction has the potential for revealing something new about your partner’s talents, their history and their dreams. 

But as relationships mature, opportunities for mutual growth become harder to come by.  Which is why marriages turn dull and friendships fade. 

In the absence of novelty, we experience boredom.

Interestingly, the same is true for our connection with brands.  Brain imaging studies reveal that consumers experience greater emotional arousal when thinking about newly formed brand relationships than for long-standing ones.  It’s because newer brand relationships spark many of the same reactions as a blossoming romance: surprise, fascination, curiosity.

Inevitably, however, the excitement fades.  We adapt.  And suddenly we experience an itch to try something new.

How do you revive a tired relationship?  Marriage therapists recommend finding new adventures that partners can engage in together.  Sharing in novel experiences can be a powerful tool for preventing adaption and restoring some of the elusive magic that was there when a couple first met.

The lesson: The older the relationship, the harder you need to work to generate excitement.  Even the most successful brands can often benefit from a well-timed refresh to reinvigorate consumer interest.

2. We Love What Moves Us Toward Our Ideal-Self

Not all romantic relationships are equally rewarding.  Some partners help us achieve our intrinsic goals while others stifle them. 

The trouble is, it’s not always easy to tell these partners apart.  Suppose, for example, that you’re interested in learning how to rock climb.  You share your ambition with your boyfriend one night over dinner, and receive a seemingly positive response. “That’s great,” he says, pouring you a glass of wine.

He’s being supportive, right?

The answer depends on what happens next.   If he subtly shifts the conversation onto a different topic, you are likely to register a mental note: rock climbing does not generate an enthusiastic response. 

Research shows that the best relationships are the ones in which partners help one another clarify their plans, offer assistance and actively encourage.  When partners serve as allies, their connection deepens and their relationship grows.

The same can be said for the relationship between a brand and its customers.  The moment we view a brand as a partner in the quest to achieve our ideal-self, we become attached.

The lesson: Creating strong brand connections involves more than simply offering great products.  Showing a broader commitment to helping your audience reach their ideal self can naturally enhance their brand loyalty.

3. We Love What Makes Us Feel Accepted

There are times, however, when focusing exclusively on the consumer ideal can backfire, especially when that ideal is too distant from the current reality.

Consider the success of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, which generated billions and became a viral sensation by purposely eschewing professional models in favor of ordinary people.  By highlighting customers’ reality instead of their ideal, Dove was able to demonstrate that it understands its audience in a way that its competitors don’t.

According to a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Marketing, when the images a brand projects are too far ahead of its customers, the reaction is not always positive.  Consumers tend to infer that what the brand is selling is out of their reach and consequently irrelevant.  

The lesson:  Perfection is not always appealing.  For a brand to be successful, consumers must view it as relatable first.

4. Satisfaction Is Not Love

Being satisfied with your marriage is not the same thing as being passionately in love.  The same can be said for brand relationships.  You might be perfectly satisfied with your Samsung refrigerator but that doesn’t mean you’re going to rave about it to all your friends.

But there’s an important distinction between these relationships.  While the personal and financial cost of getting a divorce can keep a lackluster marriage going for years, the consequences to ending a brand relationship are relatively trivial. 

Which is one reason customer satisfaction can be a surprisingly poor predictor of long-term loyalty.  When the opportunities for defection are high and the barriers to switching are low, satisfaction alone is rarely enough to sustain customer interest.

What does predict long-term loyalty?  Emotional attachment. 

When we’re emotionally attached to a brand, we come to view it as part of our personal identity.  We overlook appealing alternatives.  And we become willing to sacrifice valuable resources, like time, money and attention, just as we would in a committed romantic relationship. 

The lesson: The more competition you face, the more vital emotional connections become.  Satisfaction alone is rarely enough to keep a relationship going, especially when switching is easy. 

So, what can the science of love teach us about marketing? 

The answer is a lot.  Which is why we should listen.  And perhaps, like the newly enlightened couple at end of a romantic comedy, even consider the possibility that we’ve been searching for answers in the wrong places all along.

Ron Friedman, Ph.D. is the founder of ignite80, a consulting firm that helps leaders build thriving organizations, and the author of the forthcoming book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.

Connect with him @ronfriedman.

To receive an email the next time he posts, click here.

Ron Friedman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist who studies the science of workplace excellence.

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