Marketers have long known that consumers react in a favorable way when products and services are given human attributes, or anthropomorphized, in their branding and advertising.

Think of the Michelin Man. Allstate’s “good hands.” Even the former Lowe’s slogan “Let’s build something together.”

Since the 1990s, academicians studying this phenomenon have agreed that it reflects a “brand as partner” relationship between consumer and product. For example: The combined contributions of homeowner and lawn mower create a neatly trimmed yard.

But a recent study by a Johns Hopkins University researcher goes a step further by contending that some consumers ― materialists who strongly link possessions to happiness and who tend to have poor personal relationships ― regard anthropomorphized popular products as servants over which they can assert power and gain control that they otherwise lack in their lives.

ServantAccording to Johns Hopkins Carey Business School Associate Professor Hyeongmin (Christian) Kim, the lead author of the study, materialists prefer a servant brand to a partner brand when the brand is anthropomorphized, and respond more favorably to an anthropomorphized servant brand than do non-materialists.

“Through their advertising, companies signal whether a brand is a partner or a servant,” Kim said. “Most consumers, materialists and non-materialists alike, just passively take in this information; they don’t waste a lot of cognitive energy on what it means. However, different consumers respond differently to the signals. When materialists encounter an anthropomorphized servant brand, they sense an opportunity to fulfill their need to dominate something. They would rather dominate other people, but socially that’s not an easy thing to accomplish. So, for this type of consumer, the next best thing is to dominate a servant brand.”

A key piece of the process, according to Kim, is that “the brand must have human attributes. That’s what materialists are responding to in their desire to have control. The feeling wouldn’t be the same toward an objectified brand [that is, one lacking human attributes] or an entirely inanimate object like a rock. It has to be anthropomorphized.”

Non-materialists don’t register this effect, because they place no value in a master-servant relationship, Kim said. They prefer partner brands, which lend themselves to relationships in which the consumer’s trust develops over an extended time.

With co-author Thomas Kramer, an associate professor at the University of California at Riverside, Kim conducted four studies with about 1,100 participants, gauging their desire to dominate relationships and their willingness to pay for products based on their presentation as a servant versus partner brand.

Marketers could benefit from the study’s findings, says Kim, by pitching brands in a servant context to population groups and regions that have been shown in previous studies to be more materialistic than others, such as younger consumers and residents of metropolitan areas. Conversely, older consumers and people who live in suburban, exurban, and rural areas could be enticed by brands positioned as partners.

Kim says he sees abundant potential for further research along the lines of this paper. Given the public’s reliance on smartphones and other digital devices, he might examine the intriguing if disturbing prospect of the brand as master and the consumer as servant.

Other possibilities include studies of whether people in positions of power, who already dominate in the public sphere, react more or less positively to servant brands; and whether products that are advertised as guardians, such as home security systems or particularly safe cars, are perceived differently than servant and partner brands.

The paper by Kim and Kramer, “Do Materialists Prefer the ‘Brand-as-Servant’? The Interactive Effect of Anthropomorphized Brand Roles and Materialism on Consumer Responses,” was published last summer in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Sources: Journal of Consumer Research, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School