Based on Research By Vikas Mittal and Carly M. Frennea

Emotions? Quality? Habit? Or Simply No Choice? Why We Buy The Brands We Do

  • Marketing executives need a nuanced understanding of five different types of customer commitment.
  • Marketing managers should handle each type of commitment differently.
  • Firms need to avoid forced customer commitment to their brands, instead fostering loyalty based on habit and a perceived economic value.

How do you tell the world about yourself? Maybe you donate to women’s microbusinesses, fret aloud over the shrinking ice cap and drive a Prius or a vintage stoner Volkswagen van. Or maybe you announce yourself in a different way: You support the ballet gala and drive a Mercedes, impressing friends and enemies alike with understated elegance.

We all choose the brands we do because they say something about us, furthering an identity we crave. Often, that identifying power is the main reason we buy. Known as “normative commitment,” it’s one of five key types of commitment in a new model that explains what drives customers to choose certain products.    

Developed by a team including Vikas Mittal, a professor at the business school, and Carly M. Frennea, engagement science manager at Nike, Inc., the model is based on two large-scale studies that, combined, spanned ten different countries and a variety of products, services and industries. Using this research, the team identified five types of commitment that consumers make toward a particular brand.

What, for example, induces a person to pay $170 for moisturizer in a gilded flask rather than $1 for the same product in a plastic tub from Dollar Tree? She may actually want that economic sacrifice, equating it with higher value. The motivation here is called “economic commitment.”

Emotion is another driver of consumer choice. Maybe you serve your children Jif peanut butter because it summons happy memories of your mom using it for sandwiches. Researchers call this type of loyalty “affective commitment.”

Not all buying choices resonate so deeply. Maybe you keep using your Microsoft products because you always have. True, you once flirted with Apple, but why quit something good, something known, something comfortable? This type of buying pattern is “habitual commitment.”

Commitment can also arise from darker drivers, what researchers label “forced commitment.” You stick with your electric company because it is the only game in town. Spam and Ramen are the foods you can afford to eat. Not surprisingly, coerced loyalty is the most fragile. The customer feels like a hostage. As soon as an escape appears, she’s gone.

Past marketing studies have dealt with the service industry and ignored consumer commitment to products. Because no previous study had tested commitment models in countries outside of the United States, the research scholars addressed these gaps in two studies. The first, conducted among 2,246 customers in the U.S., examined both products (gaming consoles, handheld devices and operating systems) and services (hotels, pharmacy, web search and retail). The second surveyed 6,696 people from nine different countries, and examined the automotive, banking and mobile phone industries.

The analysis revealed some clear lessons for marketers. First: avoid forced commitment. Naively, many marketers believe that increasing customer barriers – so called exit barriers – strengthens a company’s position. It doesn’t. It just makes the customer feel like hostage. Instead, firms should try to foster economic and habitual commitment. The first creates a sense of value, and the second makes consumption easier. Both are more authentic reflections of what the buyer really wants, which makes them more sustainable.

Different commitment types, moreover, work best with certain product types. Affective, normative and habitual commitments get more traction when consumers are buying goods rather than services. Economic commitment, on the other hand, drives more services purchases, especially those that come with loyalty programs.

Because affective commitment matters the most, executives want to know the best way to promote it. Simple: deepen brand attachment. To do this, marketers need to ensure work on brand building. They also need to make sure that customers see a product or service going beyond the bare minimum. Economic commitment, on the other hand, is best built with tools such as loyalty programs.

Know thy customer and why he or she may want what you are selling. Commitments to customers can reveal truths that make the difference in how long your relationship with your customers will last.

Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University and an adjunct professor of family medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. Carly M. Frennea received her PhD in marketing from the Jones Graduate School of Business.

To learn more, see: Keiningham, T. L., Frennea, C. M., Aksoy, L., Buoye, A., & Mittal, V. (2015). A five-component customer commitment model: Implications for repurchase intentions in goods and services industries. Journal of Service Research, 18(4), 433-450.