Emotional Branding and the Strategic Value of the Doppelganger Brand Image

Preview summary at the Association for Consumer Research

In order to forge strong and enduring relationships with their customers, leading brands such as Apple, Nike, Lexus, and Starbucks have recently turned to emotional branding strategies. These strategies seek to demonstrate an emphatic understanding of customers’ life circumstances, hopes, and dreams as a means of forging deep and enduring affective and relational bonds. Over the past decade, this strategy has been heralded as a key to brand management success and has widely supplanted more traditional branding strategies based on rational or symbolic appeals.

Our research provides a critical review of emotional branding and proposes that this strategy can give rise to an unintended consequence: the doppelgänger brand image. In brief, a doppelgänger brand image is a family of disparaging images and stories about a brand that are circulated in popular culture by a loosely organized and Internet-linked network of consumers, anti-brand activists, bloggers, and members of the news and entertainment media. In recent years, these branding challenges have confronted several well-known brands, including Nike, McDonald’s, and Apple, among others.

Over time, these brand-focused criticisms can coalesce into a set of opposing meanings that haunt brands that have otherwise successfully carved out competitive positions through emotional-branding strategies.  In effect, a doppelgänger brand image culturally competes with the emotionally resonant image that brands have developed. Our research illustrates this phenomenon in the case of Starbucks. Based on depth interviews with 36 coffee shop patrons, we find that uncharitable cultural constructions of Starbucks serve as an underlying motive for a passionate form of brand avoidance. This motive appears to be energized by perceptions that Starbucks’ marketing efforts are inauthentic and emotionally shallow.

In addition to avoiding Starbucks, these consumers actively seek out and patronize local coffee shops that provide a sense of authenticity that Starbucks lacks. Specifically, this authenticity comes in two forms: (1) the sense of an authentic coffee shop experience, (2) feelings of connection with an authentic coffee shop owner/operator. Ironically, these two forms of authenticity are qualities that Starbucks seeks to convey via its emotional branding strategy. Thus, it seems that these efforts are actually working in favor of its competition (i.e., local coffee shops).

Lovemarks framing
This paper explores the ever-growing practice of “emotional branding”, as well as the development of what the authors dub “doppelgänger brands”. This second, often negative, brand identity can undermine emotional branding and should be combated with authenticity and transparency. The level of open interaction with consumers is one of the major stepping stones to creating a Lovemark.