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Speak Not of Love

Speak Not of Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About Brand Love

Oliver Feldwick

Head of Innovation

The & Partnership London


Words matter. They shape the way that we see the world. They are the critical currency of brand strategy. It is irresponsible for us to not consistently re-examine their usage and the assumptions they bring with them.

We reach for analogies and metaphors when talking about brands because they’re complicated, intangible beasts. But in doing so we often commit a fallacy. Just because we can say it, doesn’t mean it’s true. By asking “what is the brand essence” we presuppose that brands have an essence and that it’s meaningful to ask. But it is a fiction.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with that – it can either be a helpful fiction or an unhelpful one. “Brand personality” can be a useful way to articulate a complex set of features. Studies by social psychologist Jennifer Aaker in the 90s established that personalities and anthropomorphism were a useful way of framing brands. Can a brand objectively be “witty”? I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. It can serve a purpose and as long as we remain conscious of the limitations of our metaphors then we’re okay.

Brand love is a particularly pernicious phrase. I’m sure we’ve all casually used it as a “go-to”. “This campaign will build brand love by …”. But, for our campaigns and our work to actually deliver we need to be precise about what we actually mean by that. So, it’s worth examining the origins and appropriateness of “brand love”.

Looking back at the origins of brand love, it is founded in a certain rigour. Marketing professor Aaron Ahuvia spent decades exploring brand love as a concept, starting as a PhD thesis in 1993. He articulates that love for an object is a valid, but that it’s a different kind of love, such as “I love my car”. Kevin Roberts’ Lovemarks took the love-in to an extreme level, positing that lovemarks as a concept somehow eclipse brands altogether.

But how many people know the theory behind the language? All too often, we use it based on folk science rather than as part of a structured framework. The simplistic version tends to run: “love is a good thing, let’s build love”. But the concept of brand love used lazily is an unhelpful sentiment on a couple of levels.

It is imprecise. It’s a difficult and almost nonsensical thing to measure an extent of love. Poets have spent centuries trying to articulate love. “My love is deep than the deepest ocean.” The ineffable, indescribable preciousness of love is part of what renders it useless in the loveless world of brand management. Asking “how much do you love brand X?” makes a mockery of both love and of measurement. 

It is inarticulate. It’s lazy language in the world of brand management. It becomes a default thing to reach for. But what do you actually mean? Are you building affinity? Are you forming connections through humour? Are you building awareness of a new product innovation? Are you entertaining? Solving? Providing? There’s so much more we can aim to do than “build brand love”.

One of the dangers with love is that it can blind us to other things. The obvious one here being to sell stuff or deliver a service. “Brand love” shouldn’t get in the way.

It is inflated. Do brands really deserve our love? And is it truly possible or meaningful to love a brand? If so, what kind of love do we mean? I certainly hope that the love someone has for a partner, a parent or a child is something fundamentally different to any brand, even a brand you really, really like. Certainly, not all brands can be loved (or maybe, there are some brands only a brand manager can love!). Maybe superfans really can love Nike, Disney, Apple or Supreme but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Maybe it’s time to permanently put brands into the friend-zone.

So why do we keep reaching for brand love? Perhaps it’s because it’s flattering – it hints at a higher purpose and a strength of connection that simply isn’t there most of the time. We all want to be loved, so surely our brands deserve that too. Why settle for being liked if you can shoot for love?

This isn’t to say that brands should never reach for some kind of love, but chasing love can get in the way of building your brand. We need to keep using words to articulate our brands. So, where we are imprecise, let’s be measurable. Where we are inarticulate, let’s be meaningful. And where we are inflated, let’s be modest.

Let’s reach for language more fitting for our brands and their roles in people’s lives. A more modest, measurable and meaningful set of words. In touch with our brand and respectful of our audience. Let’s use “love” sparingly, for the things (and occasionally brands) that truly deserve it.