Criticism of a brand lowers the self-esteem of its adherents

In "The effects of self-brand connections on responses to brand failure: A new look at the consumer–brand relationship," a paper to be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers from Hong Kong Baptist University, U Illinois, and Villanova School of Business report on research they conducted into how loyal customers feel when bad things are said about the brands they love. They concluded that, for people who personally identify with a company and its products, negative information about the company was experienced as self-esteem-lowering personal attacks.

I think the most ferocious love is always unrequited love. The companies we love don't love us back. That probably explains the tedious "zealot" snipes I get every time I breathe even the mildest criticism of Apple -- when criticism of your favorite corporation lowers your self-esteem, it's only natural to respond with aggressive ad-hominem.

The researchers performed two experiments, one on a group of 30 women and another on 170 undergraduate students, in order to see whether the subjects' self esteem was tied to the general ratings of various brands. Those who had high self-brand connections (SBC)—that is, those who follow, research, or simply like a certain brand—were the ones whose self esteem suffered the most when their brands didn't do well or were criticized. Those with low SBC remained virtually unaffected on a personal level.

The residual effect of this is that those with high SBCs tend to discount negative news about their favorite brands, and sometimes even ignore it altogether in favor of happier thoughts.

"Consumers are highly resistant to brand failure to the point that they’re willing to rewrite history," business administration professor and researcher Tiffany Barnett White said in a statement. "It not only explains why so many Toyota customers ignored the negative brand information in the aftermath of the highly publicized recalls, it also accounts for why they’re quick to defend the company and why they would want to re-write history in a more positive way."

Fanbois treat criticism of favorite brands as threat to self-image

The effects of self-brand connections on responses to brand failure: A new look at the consumer–brand relationship



  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic kicked off a discussion about A&F paying the “Jersey Shore” to stop wearing their brand: this seems to dovetail with that idea, that aspirational brands can be damaged by association with people of no aspirations. 

    1. That fact that there’s an institution named “Hong Kong Baptist University” kinda has my head spinning…

    1. Possible parallel with followers/adherents to a religion?

      I’d go you (and MrJM) one better, which is that this all comes down to tribalism, something atheists living in exile can (and must) be subject to as much as churchgoers and flag-wavers. Of course, we all make choices about how and through what channels and to what extent to indulge in those feelings, but I think you’re basically right. Monkey brains will make monkey decisions.

  2. I suspect the converse of high SBC is true, too.  When we associate as being AGAINST a brand (whether it’s a company, political party, religion, sports team, etc.), we feel good when we hear bad things about brands that we hate.

    Hence the tendency of minimizing, ignoring or misinterpreting good new about the hated brand.

    1. It would also explain the tendency of bloggers that like to jump on the bandwagon of perceived “bad news” stories regarding brands they dislike. See if you can guess who wrote the following headlines:

      Apple patents mobile camera that other people can shut off
      Apple’s MobileMe email secretly blocks some outgoing messages
      Apple gets into the book-banning business
      Apple implements iStore changes, prohibits Sony from selling …
      iTunes update spies on your listening and sends it to Apple
      Apple says no Project Gutenberg for iPhone because some old books …
      iOS devices secretly log and retain record of every place you go …
      Apple to Mac owners: throw away your monitor if Hollywood says so …
      Apple to add Trusted Computing to the new kernel?
      New iPods reengineered to block synching with Linux
      Why Apple is to blame for iTunes DRM
      Apple restricting DVD region-changes — voluntarily!
      Apple’s hypocritical slam against French DRM-interop law
      Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)
      iPhone developer EULA turns programmers into serfs
      Boing Boing: Apple to iPod owners: “Eat shit and die”


  3. Ooo, I bet this works exactly the same for political “brands,”  for fixed beliefs, etc.

  4. I thought it was all in my head, but I guess I HAVE noticed a slightly diminished swagger in the few Ed Hardy dead-enders I see from time to time.

  5. Thanks a whole lot, puny primate brain. Intense affective attachments to your in-group might have made some kind of sense back in your hominid kin group/tribal period; but you’ve really got to knock it off: I’ve caught you glomming onto nation-states, religions, and now corporations? FFS.

  6. Does this seem like a “duh” conclusion to anyone else? It really required collaboration between three universities?  

    Up next from these groundbreaking thought leaders: cars are sometimes seen as status symbols, happy music makes some people happier, and night time is when most people get sleepy.

  7. I know we’re all consumer drones or whatever, but I don’t see why it needs to have anything to do with “identifying” with a brand. Implying that you’ve made a foolish choice can lower your self esteem. If you put more effort into the choice or were previously more sure of it, it will lower it more. Makes sense to me.

    1. Perhaps you don;t understand the point because you do not identify with brands the way some people do? Just a thought.

  8. This is really interesting. I’m going to make a note on my Palm PDA to look into this more later, but right now I’ve got an episode of “Wonderfalls” to watch on my Apple TV.

  9. Makes sense I guess.  When you pick one brand over another you’re making a decision.  When someone criticizes that brand, they’re saying you made the wrong decision.

  10. “…when criticism of your favorite corporation lowers your self-esteem, it’s only natural to respond with aggressive ad-hominem”

    Fuck those ad hom-ing douches, amirite?!

  11. Speaking as someone who criticizes -some- of Cory’s criticisms of Apple, I only ever do it because sometime he whines when he could act, while complaining that too many people whine instead of acting, and that lowers my opinion of BB, a brand with which I identify. I do hope I’ve never been a sniper or caused any reaction other than a brief look in the mirror. (There’s an app for that, you know). 

    1. Acting and whining are not mutually exclusive, and seeing as this is a blog it’s better suited to one than the other.

      Maybe instead of whining about his whining, you should act?  I’m sure he’s not that hard to track down.

    2. I suppose Cory can now hide behind this study whenever someone calls bullshit on an unfounded criticism of Apple.

  12. That probably explains the tedious “zealot” snipes I get every time I breathe even the mildest criticism of Apple — when criticism of your favorite corporation lowers your self-esteem, it’s only natural to respond with aggressive ad-hominem.

    Also the response of moderators, and blog owners who have occasionally gotten upset over comments critical of the blog

  13. If you endeavor to do any kind of retail sales one of the first things you will be taught is to never directly criticize the widget the customer currently owns while you’re trying to persuade them to by a new one.  (Later you’ll learn when to go ahead and make them feel bad, all the better to manipulate them into making a choice they wouldn’t have made if thinking clearly and rationally.  Yuck.)

    I think that this phenomena is really interesting in connection with the ever-increasing brandedness of the political parties.  It’s another reason, or perhaps one of the main reasons, that productive discourse has disappeared from that front, I think.

  14. I can’t believe you’re reading my comment on THAT monitor. It’s so low-res and the colors are all wrong. Ugh. I feel embarrassed for you, I really do. On the other hand, I guess you take what you can get, right? Good monitors cost a lot, these days. Maybe you could check Craigslist or eBay. Or, if you still can’t afford one, maybe you could take some classes at night and try to get a promotion, you know? Broaden your horizons, man. You don’t want to be stuck like that forever, do you? Just circling around in a tiny fishbowl existence (with that crappy monitor burning your eyeballs out). You really should upgrade. Just try a little harder.

  15. As a Mac OSX user, I have a stake in the continued popularity of the brand–WINE has limitations, and sometimes recompiling linux applications is a royal pain.

  16. “That probably explains the tedious “zealot” snipes I get every time I breathe even the mildest criticism of Apple — when criticism of your favorite corporation lowers your self-esteem, it’s only natural to respond with aggressive ad-hominem.”

    I’ll be the first to admit that my ‘tedious “zealot” snipes’ might come partly because I’m frankly grateful to Apple that my 15 years of PC problems are behind me. But the bulk of my annoyance most certainly comes from the absolutely constant, unending complaining from every perch available.

    I think Cory Doctorow could find a way to twist a piece for ‘Cat Fancy’ magazine into a rail about the fabled ‘walled garden’. I would be shocked if ‘Cory’s Cilantro-Lime Quesedilla’ recipe sent in to Parade magazine didn’t mention Apple somehow.

    1. That comment had a kind of hunted feel to it. It’s like a desperate message scrawled on some rock in the wilderness, warning any unwary hikers that here, there be men who play the most dangerous game.

  17. I avoid this whole thing by diligently researching my purchases and buying the absolute worst available example of a needed item.  That way, people can criticize it and I’ll say, “yeah, isn’t it horrible?”  This is how I ended up with a Palm Pre.  Damn, this phone is bad.

  18. I think Cory Doctorow could find a way to twist a piece for ‘Cat Fancy’ magazine into a rail about the fabled ‘walled garden’.

    The “walled garden” metaphor is especially hilarious when you consider what is, apparently, Cory Doctorow’s most favorite thing in the whole wide wonderful world: Disneyland. You know, a literal walled garden. 

    I will say, I don’t think he’s wrong here. People really do react the way he says, and it’s kind of beside the point whether or not he’s ever made a “mild” criticism of Apple in his life. Emotional investments are as real to our monkey brains as any other kind. There’s no criticism of Ayn Rand that a 19-year-old who’s just burned through Atlas Shrugged is going to be willing to hear. Sports teams have their fans regardless of the win-loss record at the end of the season, and regardless of whether or not those fans ever spent money on the team. I will punch you in the face if you don’t do a pretty good job of pretending to be impressed by the house I just went six figures into debt for, and I know in my gut that people who talk about housing prices continuing to decline (now that I’m a homeowner) are full of it. How could people not want to buy houses? I sure as hell just did!

    But it’s universal. Cory himself (obviously) has giant emotional sore spots and blind loyalties, and while I’m not saying that’s a good thing, it’s probably harmless, and inescapable to the extent that he’s a miserable human like the rest of us and not really a happy mutant. The “mild” Apple postings where he’s clutching his pearls about what kind of a world his toddler will grow up in if people actually buy an iPad are themselves examples. Do we really live in a world of capital-M-“Makers” vs. slick evil corporate techno-drones, engaged in a titanic struggle of hard-won personal awesomeness vs. insidious consumerist poison? No, but he writes it up that way because we all intuitively understand the rhetorical forms that Our Tribe uses to describe the Other Tribe. And the just-spent-$600-on-an-iPad Tribe is given no choice by their own monkey brains but to fling whatever feces is handy right back at him.

    This is why I kind of liked seeing this article on BB. It’s kind of obvious in its way, but it’s such a good case study in human nature.

  19. “…you’re not how much money you’ve got in the bank.  You’re not your job. 
    You’re not your family, and you’re not who you tell yourself…. You’re not your name…. You’re not your problems…. You’re not your age…. You are not your hopes.”
    ~Chuck Palahniuk

  20. Typical nonautistic herd behaviour. You do it with people, brands, gods, scientific beliefs. Anything that fits into a power hierarchy.

    You’re doing it right now.

    I’m standing behind you.


  21. You know, I’d like to know if there’s a correlation between ‘amount one pays’ and ‘amount of butt-hurt-edness.’ (That’s a sciency term.) Seriously… I use mostly Linux except for one Windows box, and while I can get argumentative when people with no Linux experience criticize Linux, I’ve seen spitting and screaming wars over Mac criticism. Even if it didn’t cost more to do less than I can with Linux (or a PC) that alone would scare me away from the brand.

  22. This thread could be the unholy nexus of fanboy wars with a little more effort. Quickly, someone say something bad about an automobile manufacturer!

    We also need mention of which videogame console is better than all of the others.

    1. @fnc I don’t know what you are talking about – #VIM is *obviously* the best command line editor. All others are pale imitations. #AmIDoingItRight? Hang on – this isn’t twitter? WTF. 

  23. Hence why Apple is so loved, yet as the most valuable company in the US, it can’t be anything more than one of those ‘evil’ corporations you read about.

    One of my favorite bands (KMFDM) found a way to turn this tendency into a win/win situation with their self deprecating song SUCKS. Chanting “KMFDM Sucks!” is the norm to illicit an encore. So you can’t really put them down – they’re already there and we all know it and are swimming together in the mire.

  24. Could it not come down to the fact that generally people that need to criticize other people’s choices/opinions (knowing that we all have them and they are all based on one’s specific life experiences) are kind of assholes? I know I’m out on a limb on this one, but how could being confronted with, “Oh you like Kerouac? Kerouac was a total dick!” not piss you off a little (if you liked Kerouac of course)?

    Not saying I don’t hold such opinions, and that I might voice them knowing I’d alienate or anger someone…

  25.  This is a surprisingly powerful idea. The United States used to be a nation made up of citizens. Now that we’ve all been knocked down to consumers, it’s not a nation any more, it’s merely a brand.

    USA! USA! USA!

  26. I’ve seen a variant of this phenomenon where people go out of their way to paint someone as a “fanboi” regardless of the facts.  

  27. The Apple fans really froth at the mouth when Cory speaks his mind about their darling company.  I enjoy the mix of both strong (often gushing) admiration and reviews of Apple product releases as well as some level headed criticism of the company’s practices that can be found here by the various contributors on Boing Boing.  I find it hard to imagine why anyone would want one without the other unless they felt a need to justify their platform of choice, which to me indicates insecurity and doubt about that choice.

    1. So, anyone disagreeing with Cory’s Apple posts are universally Apple fans frothing? Really? As opposed to, say, merely regular readers who have a problem with Cory’s occasional lapses into tunnel-vision? One needn’t be a fanboi to have problems with Cory’s fairly obvious editorial axe-grinding. “Speaking his mind” doesn’t mean his opinions are unimpeachable.

  28. Belittling any “music property” (I laugh at my use of that term too) considered as a brand seems to draw the same monkey-like ire of fans in much the same way. 

  29. Can we stop calling them “Apple fans” and start calling them “AppleCore?”  I think that’s clever.

  30. I went for a consumer APC. I chose a Nikon D90 over the Canon equivalent at the time for a deciding reason. Both I felt were evenly matched or one feature was compensated by another. However, the Nikon was good for a minimum of 100,000 operations (source: trade journal) whilst the Canon was good for 50, 000. That is what decided my purchase. Branding occurs because technically minded people will run with perceived quality. Lesser types believe they are validated by the brand. As always, post hoc ergo propter hoc.

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