Impact of brand anthropomorphism on ethical judgment: the roles of failure type and loneliness

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College of Business


Purpose: This paper aims to investigate whether anthropomorphized (i.e. humanized) brands are judged less negatively for competence failures than for moral lapses and how these ethical judgments impact negative word-of-mouth (NWOM) intentions of less-lonely and more-lonely consumers. Design/methodology/approach: Two scenario-based experiments were conducted, involving a total of 1,375 US mechanical turk (Amazon consumer panel) participants. Findings: Findings show that brand humanization has an impact on ethical judgments only for less-lonely consumers. More specifically, for less-lonely consumers, a humanizing strategy backfires when the failure is moral but helps the brand when the failure is competence-related. On the other hand, more-lonely consumers judge the situation less negatively overall, and this effect is not impacted by the anthropomorphization strategy. Process tests indicate that these judgments indirectly affect consumers’ intention to spread NWOM following negative events. Research limitations/implications: Future research could examine the specific process for lonely consumers (i.e. the role of empathy) and manipulate the size of the negative events (i.e. consumer perceptions of moderate vs extreme failures). Practical implications: Brand managers need to consider their specific situations, as anthropomorphization can have both positive and negative effects depending on the consumers and the failure type (moral vs competence). Originality/value: Extant research indicates that a humanizing strategy backfires when the market has negative information about the brand. This research introduces types of negative information, as well as consumers’ loneliness as moderators and contributes to the literature in branding, business ethics and word-of-mouth.

Publication Title

European Journal of Marketing