Researchers say human traits of ‘warmth and competence’ hold key to brand loyalty

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 30—People evaluate brands in the same way that they instinctively perceive and judge one another – in terms of warmth and competence – and these judgments are highly predictive of brand purchase intent and loyalty, according to a study released today.

The study was conducted by The Relational Capital Group and a team of researchers at Princeton University led by Drs. Susan T. Fiske and Nicolas O. Kervyn.  The study evaluated the impact of warmth and competence perceptions on purchase intent and loyalty toward eight national brands – McDonalds, Burger King, BP, Shell, Tropicana, Minute Maid, Tylenol and Advil.

“This study shows that purchase intent and brand loyalty are heavily influenced by consumers’ perceptions of the warmth and competence of those brands,” said Dr. Kervyn.

According to Chris Malone,  Chief Advisory Officer of The Relational Capital Group, this insight has the potential to reshape the way companies manage and market their brands.

“Since the emergence of mass market brands, products and services have been defined by their features and benefits,” he said.  “This new study suggests that features and benefits are simply an incomplete subset of the broader categories of warmth and competence that consumers perceive and judge brands against.”

People were the First Brands, Faces the First Logos

According to Drs. Fiske and Kervyn, social psychologists deduced over the past several decades that as humans struggled for survival they had to develop an ability to make two kinds of judgments with great speed and sufficient accuracy.  The first was discerning the intentions of others toward them – their warmth.  The second was to judge the ability of others to carry out their intentions – their competence.   Through studies across 36 countries, researchers have validated warmth and competence as universal dimensions of human social perception. They found that warmth includes traits like friendliness, helpfulness,  sincerity, trustworthiness and honesty, while competence is reflected by traits such as intelligence, skill, creativity, efficiency and effectiveness. 

“We’ve found strong statistical correlation between consumers’ perceptions of each brand’s warmth and competence and their intent to purchase and remain loyal to that brand,” said Dr. Fiske.  “These findings are consistent with other studies we’ve conducted that validate the influence and predictive power of warmth and competence on human behavior.  In effect, it shows that people were the first brands and faces were the first logos.”

The study also found that all brands studied fall short of consumer expectations on two critical warmth-related dimensions that are highly predictive of brand loyalty: “honest and trustworthy” and “acts with your best interests in mind.” 

“Without those traits, genuine human trust and lasting brand loyalty are impossible,” said Malone.  “It seems that in the eyes of consumers, the polices and practices of many companies consistently suggest that the company is primarily focused on advancing its own self-interest and can’t be trusted to do what’s in the best interest of the consumer,  especially when no one is watching. News headlines provide fresh examples almost weekly.

“Some highly successful companies like Zappos and USAA instinctively employ warmth and competence principles in building legendary brand loyalty,”  said Malone.  “However, the warmth and competence model and its potential have been virtually unknown outside the field of social psychology.  Now companies and brands have the opportunity to consciously apply the model to build more durable and lasting consumer relationships.”  

About The Study

Conducted July 1-7, 2010,  this study measured the warmth and competence perceptions and priorities of a demographically balanced sample of 1,042 U.S. adult consumers for eight national brands, as well as their purchase intent and brand loyalty toward each. The brands examined included McDonalds,  Burger King, BP, Shell, Tropicana, Minute Maid, Tylenol and Advil.

About The Relational Capital Group

The Relational Capital Group is a research–based, professional development and advisory services firm that helps organizations transform and strengthen the business relationships that drive their growth,  productivity and profitability. They are recognized as world-class experts on the principles, process and science of lasting,  mutually-beneficial business relationships.  In particular, they apply their expertise to the advancement of Customer Relationships,  Colleague/Team Relationships and Brand Relationships. For more information visit

About Dr. Susan T. Fiske

Dr. Fiske, Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology at Princeton University is a social psychologist renowned for her work on social cognition,  stereotypes, and prejudice. She has authored over 175 publications and has written seven books, including her most recent work Social Beings: A Core Motives Approach to Social Psychology. Social Cognition, a graduate level text she wrote with Shelley Taylor, defined the subfield of social cognition. A new version was published in 2008. She also edits the Annual Review of Psychology and the Handbook of Social Psychology.   Most recently, she won a the 2010 APA Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award, the 2010 Society for Personality and Social Psychology Donald T. Campbell Award, a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2009 William James Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science.

About Dr. Nicolas O. Kervyn

Dr. Kervyn earned his masters and doctoral degrees in psychology from the Catholic University of Louvain and is currently a research fellow at Princeton University,  working closely with Dr. Fiske.  He has published several research papers on warmth and competence, social perception and group stereotypes.

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