Brands that evoke the warm fuzzies hit the mark with lonely consumers: study

As social isolation grows, people will increasingly build relationships with products that provide an emotional glow.

EDMONTON — In a study that gives new meaning to retail therapy, University of Alberta marketing researchers have found that consumers who feel lonely will often turn to brands that exude warmth.

“We found that excluded or lonely people tend to choose warmer brands, because they think these brands will be better relationship partners,” says Kyle Murray, dean of the Alberta School of Business, who co-authored the study with Soyoung Kim and Sarah Moore. 

To examine the relationship between social exclusion and branding, researchers began by having 130 undergraduate students play a ball-toss video game called Cyberball, which is often used to study ostracism and exclusion. Participants believed they were playing with two or three team members; in fact, those teammates were controlled by the programmer.

One group of participants were never thrown the ball, a condition meant to elicit feelings of exclusion. A second group received passes and therefore were more likely to feel included.

As they left, all participants were offered a choice between two gift bags of appreciation: one with a Tide laundry detergent logo, the other labelled with the cuddly bear of Snuggle detergent.

“The people who were excluded in the game tended to choose the bag with the Snuggle bear,” says Murray. “They felt the Snuggle bear would be a better laundry detergent partner.”

All told, across five subsequent separate studies, the team’s findings suggested that socially excluded consumers prefer warm over less-warm brands.

There are potentially a lot of lonely consumers. Before COVID-19, one in five Canadian adults reported some degree of loneliness or social isolation. That figure has been rising steadily since the pandemic began, say the study’s authors.

“The compensation they get from a brand is powerful,” he adds. It also provides a degree of comfort and “making up for missing human relationships.”

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To speak with Kyle Murray about his study, please contact:

Michael Brown
U of A media specialist | 780-977-1411