Humans are “intent detectors,” and, as such, judge brands and companies based on the latter’s ability to project warmth and competence, Susan Fiske and Chris Malone argued in a joint presentation on Wednesday.
Fiske is a professor in the psychology department and Malone is the founder of Fidelum Partners, a consulting firm for consumer marketing strategy.
Malone explained that humans make judgments very quickly about others based on the degree of warmth in their intention, and their ability to carry out that intention.
“We do this without thinking, almost like breathing,” Malone said.
Fiske explained that humans develop emotions — namely disgust, pride, pity and envy — in response to the judgment of others’ warmth and competence. She noted that homeless people are perceived as having little warmth and poor competence, and that this combination leads people to react with disgust. At direct opposite ends are the so-called “in-groups,” which are groups perceived as having good intentions and competence to act.
Malone also said that warmth and confidence have guided brand loyalty as well.
“Every human is a brand, and every brand is human,” he said.
A survey of 45 companies shows that companies such as McDonalds, Burger King, Best Buy and Amazon are seen as warm and competent, while tobacco and oil companies are seen as cold and incompetent, Malone said. He added that brands such as Mercedes, Rolex, Gucci and Rolls Royce are perceived as competent but not warm, while government-sponsored agencies such as the United States Postal Service and Public Transport are seen as warm but low in competence.
Malone explained that, before the Industrial Revolution, people judged each other based on facial expression and body language, but noted that transactions are no longer conducted face-to-face.
“We don’t see the people that make our shoes anymore,” Malone said. “We don’t even see the shoes when we buy them.”
He advised companies to become more self-aware about their public image to change the way the business is conducted and to shift their priorities from shareholders to customers. Companies, he said, frequently judge their consumers without realizing that consumers are judging them as well.
Fiske also presented their scientific findings on the American public’s perception of social classes, ethnic groups, animals, cooperation and even diseases. According to Fiske, research done at the University about mental illness shows that those with obsessive compulsive disorder and depression are seen as brilliant and mad, cold and competent. An eating disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder fit in as normal, and people suffering from Down syndrome are seen as well-intentioned but not competent.
Even animals are perceived as having human intent, Fiske said. For example, she said that leopards, tigers and bears are seen as cold but competent, while lizards are perceived as cold and incompetent.
The lecture, entitled “Policy Implications of ‘The HUMAN Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies,” took place at 4:30 p.m. at Robertson Bowl 016 to an audience of students and local residents. A public reception and signing of their book followed afterward.