Recent psychology research on brands: Why we irrationally defend brands with known issues. And, the User Experience.

Recent research from a team including Angela Lee and Monika Lisjak at the Kellogg School of Management, and Wendi L. Gardner at Northwestern University, examined the relationships people have with brands in a series of experiments. This was originally from Business Daily {} but also Mashable {}

I'm kind of interested in this as a social scientist, and have talked about 'brand affinities' and the use of logos in class. But I'm also a tech enthusiast. So I was thinking what the implications for tech brands are, and why the platform wars (computers, phones, tablets, OS, also game consoles... ) are so pervasive.

Their research consisted of four experiments involving both Starbucks and Facebook, which were chosen because of past controversies. The researchers wanted to know how willing people were to stick with a favorite brand even in tough times. This is a summary of their findings:

"If you believe that a brand is part of you, and you read something negative about it, how are you going to react?" asked Lee. "Are you going to stop using it? Or do you use it even more? A brand is very intangible — in a way, the brand goes even beyond the product itself or the actual object. So from a psychological perspective, it's interesting to consider the dynamic relationship between a consumer and the brands that they consume."

Of course. As we expect. And then this, just to underline what we have known from countless tech forums:

The researchers found that people were actually more likely to defend brands even after controversy. In particular researchers found that self-conscious, low self-esteem individuals were most likely to rate companies more favorably after critiques and controversy.

So it is low self-esteem that motivates defense of brands? Well yes and no - that seems to be a headline from the research. But of course there is much more going on.

I'm actually in the process of detoxifying myself from Apple products - at Christmas I bought myself an iPad, to go along with my MBA and iPhone 4, and realized that one of the reasons I jumped ship from Microsoft in the late nineties was because of their anti-competitive practices. I took a graduate class in Economic Geography which explored this issue along with Nike and their use of Temporary Economic Zones. So years later it was difficult to stomach the whole Samsung-Apple patent debacle, never mind knowing about the factory labor issues. We're addicted to tech, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have to think about more ethical routes around this. So for all the 'right' reasons I'm in the process of migrating to other, more open-source alternatives. Why am I mentioning this? Because in my experience of the alternatives - trying out Windows 8 then setting up Ubuntu on a Dell XPS 13, a Dell produced in a factory not a million miles away from the Apple machine - I've found it very difficult to break away from the functionality that I'm used to, the build quality, the trackpad, the decent screen (how I long to try out a lovely Windows 8 machine instead, like a Lenovo X1!). But it all coagulates around something that isn't simply 'build quality' or the drivers for a touchpad that actually do what they're supposed to, without randomly highlighting text that you had no intention of highlighting.

What is this factor? It's not just 'brand affinity' but maybe a combination of User Experience factors alongside particular forms of muscle memory and routines in the workflow that get disrupted?

I have a demanding job, with deadlines, and a workflow that is enhanced through technology is a wonderful thing (rather than those random text highlighting issues that occur and are potentially destructive or at least distracting). But I'd love to know what other people have read or experienced in this vein; unlike the research subjects of the experiment at the top of this post, I'm not going to defend Apple in terms of labor practices, and I use the equipment guiltily and constantly seeking workable, viable alternatives (again - this is where you might help). But it must be the case that a large part of our brand loyalties in this regard is being sucked into particular workflow and usability experiences, which is more 'habit' than irrational affinity?

In other words, Like Dana Woolman's laptop reviews, is the trackpad/touchpad actually something indexical, standing in for a coagulation of factors that includes an orientation on the part of the tech manufacturer on the user experience? If the Holy Grail of Windows laptops is one with a comparable touchpad, would that make me/us happy, not just because of the drivers? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

The class I'm teaching this semester is about the novel forms of experience that are being engaged with in 'late capitalism', and the tech industry is one such area, especially in terms of HCI and HRI. But it does seem that some of the affinities to particular UX in OSs is like the kind of engineering that goes in in the automotive industry, re-creating the 'new car smell' for prospective customers, or producing the satisfying 'clunk' sound and feel of car doors closing. I once interviewed engineers trying to develop a gearbox for Saab Scania trucks through haptic technologies, again creating the right 'feel' of a gearbox for prospective truckers. In these kinds of areas, the nexus between the consumer and the 'look and feel' of the product, these are broadly speaking 'aesthetic' factors (in that they are to do with the senses and design, not art). But I'm not an expert in these HCI and HRI areas and I'm having to think through my experiences reflexively as I continue to teach the course. If anyone has any insights or reading recommendations in this area, please feel free to suggest.

Looping back to the findings of the original research study: the actual summary may be simplistic (and can be interpreted along the lines of fanboy/girl wars), but is the underlying factor in the tech world more about design, 'look and feel', or that broader notion of 'aesthetics' in which objects address and engage us?