Is Your Brand Haunted by a Doppelgänger?

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.

My colleagues (Professor Craig Thompson, University of Wisconsin & Professor Zeynep Arsel, Concordia University) argue that this branding strategy can give rise to an unwanted and 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.

We suggest that, over time, these brand-focused parodies and criticisms can coalesce into a coherent 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 a brand’s management attempts to instill through its marketing activities. Our research illustrates this phenomenon by conducting a cultural analysis of the doppelgänger brand image that is beginning to haunt a paragon of emotional branding: Starbucks.

Based on depth interviews with 36 coffee shop patrons, we found 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 deliberately 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).

At present, the marketing community widely regards emotional branding as an effective means of forging strong bonds with current and potential customers. In fact, this strategy has attracted little critical attention and is perceived as having few, if any, negative side effects. Our research challenges this assumption by demonstrating that this strategy can backfire if a firm is not able to deliver on its emotional branding promises. In addition, our research lends evidence to recent claims about the importance of authenticity and transparency in marketing actions. Perhaps most importantly, our research introduces a new concept (i.e., doppelgänger brand image) into the branding lexicon, and suggests that a brand’s image cannot be fully controlled by its managers.

Traditionally, brand managers have either ignored the brand parodies and social criticisms propagated by anti-brand activists or they have sought to quell these disparaging representations through legal remedies. In contrast, our research develops the counterintuitive thesis that a doppelgänger brand image can provide valuable strategic cues that an emotional-branding story is beginning to lose its cultural resonance. By functioning as an early warning sign, a doppelgänger brand image can help brand managers identify salient cultural contradictions that fuel a potential backlash against the brand, and thus, help maintain the value of a firm’s emotional-branding investments.

In order to take advantage of the early warning potential of a doppelgänger brand image, we suggest that brand managers follow three steps:

1. Monitor Cultural Cues: Brand managers should first carefully monitor and track the cultural discourse surrounding their brand on the Internet, television, magazines, etc. They should be sensitive to both the frequency as well as the intensity of anti-brand sentiments and the specific aspects of their emotional branding story that are being subverted.

2. Identify and Track Brand Avoiders: Second, brand managers should identify and study customers for whom these doppelgänger brand images motivate forms of brand avoidance. By studying these customers’ viewpoints, managers will be able to assess which particular dimensions of a doppelgänger brand image resonate with customers and better understand how to counteract this negative imagery.

3. Develop and Test a New Emotional Branding Story: Finally, to manage the challenges posed by a doppelgänger brand image, we recommend a decidedly proactive approach. Specifically, brand managers should consider making pre-emptive changes to their emotional branding strategies before they turn negative and work against them. This may mean that an emotional branding strategy may have to be modified or scrapped while it is still accomplishing its marketing objectives. In a dynamic marketing environment, it is preferable to stay ahead of the cultural curve rather than to fall behind it and then suddenly need to play catch up with competitors that have more resonant emotional branding stories.

[Thompson, Craig J., Aric Rindfleisch, and Zeynep Arsel (2006), "Emotional Branding and the Strategic Value of the Döppelganger Brand Image," Journal of Marketing, 70 (January), 50-64]


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Est. 2008 | Aric Rindfleisch | Wisconsin School of Business | Banner Image by Bruce Fritz