Marketers often attribute characteristics to brands or products to humanize their offerings.
Lang marketing professor Dr. Jing Wan's research explores this topic and its potential applications and drawbacks.
Anthropomorphism, or attributing human characteristics to a non-human, is one of the key tricks up a marketer’s sleeve. For most of her professional career, Dr. Jing Wan has studied the trend toward humanizing popular consumer products.
“On the surface, the practice of anthropomorphizing a product works well, simply because humans connect best with other humans,” says Wan, an assistant professor of marketing and consumer studies at the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics. “But when you go a little deeper, you realize that it all depends on the context, the type of consumer, and the appropriateness of adding personality or animation to a non-human object.”
Examples of anthropomorphism or animism in marketing abound. The M&Ms mascots possess limbs, minds, and voices. Apple doesn’t have animated mascots, but its brand is associated with creativity. “Creativity doesn’t necessarily evoke humanness, per se, but it’s a recognizable personality trait that consumers can connect to,” Wan explains.
Wan points to the clothing retailer ASOS as another example of a company that personifies its products. By including the admonition “Look After Me” on its care labels, subtly attributing a personality or a mind to the product itself, the company encourages customers to believe that product is worthy of attention or care.
Current research in the area of brand and product anthropomorphism, including Wan’s, is trending toward anthropomorphizing machines and other automated technologies such as robots and artificial intelligence. As with any innovation, there are downsides and limitations to the increasingly human-like voices that emanate from machines and devices. The “uncanny valley” describes a level at which an object imitates a human so effectively that it provokes a negative emotional response from the consumer. “People don’t like to interact with things that seem creepy or abnormal to them,” Wan says.
As technology evolves, marketers and innovators dance around the line between human and robotic intelligence, recognizing that they may elicit a fearful or avoidant response on the part of someone who doesn’t want their robot vacuum or their GPS to sound indistinguishable from a human. People who are suspicious of marketing strategies that over-humanize products may exhibit “psychological reactance,” where they resist and push back against persuasive advertising. “Some consumers are more likely to suspect that a company is trying to trick them,” Wan acknowledges. “They’re more aware of the delineation between what is and what isn’t human, so marketers have to be subtler in how they reach these groups.”
Yet recent history demonstrates that humans can and do habituate to the idea of interacting with robotic machines. “We’re already talking back to Siri and Alexa,” Wan points out. “And when our Roomba tells us that it’s stuck on a stair or under the couch, we don’t feel strange about that level of humanization; we feel concern toward the Rooma.”
According to Wan, the tendency to personify objects and animals has its roots in early childhood. From birth, infants start building schemas that help them interact with the world. “Children may not be interested in how trains work, but when you stick a smiley face on it and call it Thomas the Train Engine, that child is interested,” she explains. The child is better able to interact with something that has similar traits to their own, and adults retain this propensity, albeit with higher levels of discretion.
“Other researchers have found that when we are particularly lonely, like during lockdown, we subconsciously find things to anthropomorphize,” Wan adds. “We apologize to chairs when we bump into them. We talk to our pets and plants. This is normal, and it’s something that may even be psychologically advantageous as we try to make sense of the unfamiliar by applying our existing knowledge.”
As the societal trend toward digitization opens new avenues in the study of brand and product anthropomorphism, Wan looks forward to leaving her mark on the field. “At Lang, I have the freedom to dive deep into the research that fascinates me,” she affirms. “It will be interesting to see how our collective response to brand humanization evolves over time.”
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