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Advertising: Democrats and Republicans Have Brand-Name Problems

The Republican and Democratic parties are mired in election problems.

Now, here's another problem: the political parties have relationship difficulties - and we're not talking about the Bill-Hillary kind.

According to a two-year study about how consumers relate to brands, the G.O.P. and the Democrats tied for last place on a "relationship monitor" developed by FCB Worldwide in New York. FCB, part of True North Communications, interviewed a national sample of some 2,400 consumers in late 1999 about their relationships with 60 brands, from Oreo cookies to Burger King. The results showed that consumers had stronger commitments to Clorox than they did to America's two major political parties.

"We were fascinated that consumers had stronger relationships with these inanimate objects than with political parties," said Janet Pines, FCB's director of competitive strategy and proprietary techniques. "It's scary yes, but I think it's also easy to see that a bottle of bleach is less likely to betray you than a politician."

When asked about the Democratic and Republican parties as "brands," a large number of respondents described their relationships as ambivalent, she said. In addition, the two parties ranked low on trust and other attributes like affection and chemistry. The survey showed the lowest scores came from 18-to-34-year-olds.

The survey of consumers was part of a broader two-year effort by FCB to find a demonstrable way to measure the health of a brand. It has long been known that consumers have feelings about brands and brand names. The FCB study sought to define and measure those feelings with a monitor that can alert marketers to potential dangers as well as opportunities, said David Budner, FCB's worldwide relationship monitor director. The monitor shows where brands are "at risk," and enables FCB to offer a "brand prescription" that could be anything from brand advertising to a special direct marketing promotion, Mr. Budner said.

FCB's study determined that consumers' relationships with brands were similar to relationships with other humans. The agency interviewed dozens of so-called relationship experts, like marriage counselors and psychologists and came up with 14 different attributes that exist in varying degrees in all brand relationships. The attributes were then grouped into seven so-called "relationship styles," from the negative "no commitment" style that characterizes how consumers feel about the Republicans and Democrats to the most preferred "perfect fit" style that brands like Levis, Nike and Honda received. A "perfect fit" style includes characteristics of chemistry, affection, trust and reciprocity.

"What we found is that while relationships are infinitely complex, there's a method to the madness," said Dr. Mark Ingwer, a clinical psychologist for Insight Associates in Chicago, which conducted some of the research with FCB. "Basically people aren't clear what drives them to do what they do. We are accessing a deeper level of the consumer experience to tease out the emotional wants and needs that help advertisers and marketers connect with people."

Understanding the special feelings consumers have about brands is crucial for brand profitability in a world where there is often little difference among products. The cost of acquiring a new customer is five times that of maintaining an existing one, and loyal customers account for a disproportionate share of overall sales, said Mr. Budner.

The advertising industry has spent decades and millions of dollars trying to decode the relationship between consumers and brands, said Jim Spaeth, president of the Advertising Research Foundation, a nonprofit industry association. Research now being used includes a wide range of techniques, from special questioning techniques to physically measuring emotional response by gaging such things as brain waves and basal skin response.

"The Holy Grail has been the emotional bond, that interpersonal, almost human-like relationship with brands, and it's very hard to get at," Mr. Spaeth said. "What may be different here is that FCB is trying to measure not the consumer or the brand, but to literally focus on the link between the two and the commitment between them."

The FCB study found that as in human relationships, certain feelings are more important than others to establish brand loyalty. As expected, trust is the foundation of a relationship, and lack of trust is what hurt the political parties in the survey, Ms. Pines said. But the surprise is that trust alone is not enough to keep a customer loyal. To keep customers, brands need also to establish other attributes like a "care for me" relationship style that includes empathy and reciprocity.

FCB has used the monitor for clients and in new-business pitches. In its successful pitch for Compaq earlier this year, FCB found that the computer maker scored high both on "perfect fit'` and on "no commitments," which said that the brand needed to become better known to consumers with brand advertising. The research also suggested that Compaq needed to exploit its attributes of affection and chemistry because technology has the power to delight people, Ms. Pines said.

Looking inside the scores of the Democrats and Republicans, FCB found that the G.O.P. ranked higher than the Democrats on "perfect fit" qualities among the 18-to-34-year-old group. The Republicans also ranked slightly ahead on the attribute of price, which FCB read as tax money. But the Democrats scored higher on almost all the other attributes, especially in the area of empathy and reciprocity, Ms. Pines said.

"But since neither party achieved trust, it doesn't seem to add up to a whole lot," she said. "No matter who wins the election, I think they are both kind of losers. The survey says we don't feel that good about them."


Patricia Winters Lauro, The New York Times. November 17, 2000

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times. All rights reserved.