Can the sentimental brand association of a logo be so powerful that it inspires consumers to take actions they might not have otherwise intended to take? According to a new University of Toronto study, even a subliminal glimpse of a fast-food logo can make a person more impatient and impulsive with money.
"The logo activates associations with the brand," explains study co-author Chen-Bo Zhong, professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the university.
"I think logos or other situational cues all have the same type of effect of "automaticity" -- [triggering] regulatory behaviour that is beyond our control. Studies have shown, for example, that these norms can be activated when people see an image of a library: They will lower their voices without actually having to be in a library." He also cited a study that found people who viewed a picture of an exclusive restaurant displayed better manners during a subsequent eating task.
A 2008 Duke University study found people who looked at the Apple logo scored higher on a creativity test than those who had looked at an IBM logo--presumably because they were reflecting the differing brand traits they associated with those logos.
The stronger the brand "personality," the stronger the association, Mr. Zhong said. In the case of fast-food, logos from popular chains such as McDonald's promote associations with fast food -- namely, notions related to immediate gratification and to saving time.
The first part of the study assessed 57 people after they looked at a series of flashing images. One part of the control group had fast-food logos in their set of images, but the logos were flashing at a rate too fast for the conscious mind to absorb. After the viewing, those exposed to the fast-food logos read a passage significantly faster than those who did not see the logos in their flashing images (69.5 seconds versus 84 seconds).
Another part of the study asked participants to rate the esthetics of four logos. The fast-food group saw logos of McDonald's and KFC in the mix; the control group instead viewed pictures of two generic low-priced diners. Afterward, they were all asked if they would like to receive a higher amount of money in one week or a lower amount of money immediately. Those exposed to the fast-food logos were much more likely to want the money immediately.
"Fast food seemed to have made made people impatient in a manner that could put their economic interest at risk," the study concludes.
The research underscores what most advertising professionals have long said about strong brands -- that a strong identity stems from a clear idea.
"When marketers are trying to personalize a brand whether or not they are aware of this psychological [phenomenon] -- that branding can also affect people's behaviour. But if you have a unified impression of a brand it is much easier for consumers to have a clear association. Consumers identify them more easily."
When it comes to logos, a person's reaction is not dependent on context, the researchers found, and in fact could work against what the individuals may want to be doing at that moment.
The feelings of impatience "will be applied to people's behaviour whether it is in a productive context or not," Mr. Zhong said. "You don't want to have that type of [impatient] behaviour when you are wanting to relax at home or read something. But the activation of these goals will affect people regardless of whether that is their immediate goal or not, even if it works against their happiness at that point."
That could make brands think long and hard about the negative and perhaps somewhat narrow implications of certain brand associations, or how a logo of one brand may influence a consumer's feelings about a second brand. Would apparel retailers in a shopping mall now be wary of being too close to a fast-food court, for example?
"I think it depends on the purpose of customer going to the mall," Mr. Zhong said. "The exposure to fast food will make them more committed to find the things they want, and get the task done. In fact, if you want people to browse, then having a fast-food restaurant near your brand might be a good thing."
In any case, the power of logos and their corresponding associaiton begins at an early age.
Recent research from the University of Michigan found children as young as three can recognize brand logos and products. Children viewed logos for 50 brands across 16 product categories including fast food, toys, electronics and apparel, and were asked questions about the brands. The results ranged from zero recognition to 93% for a fast-food brand. Another group who had been asked to divide pictures of McDonald's and Burger King food items onto boards showing the corresponding brand expressed brand judgments when asked to compare the two chains.
"A logo that is exposed for even a very short period of time can still have an effect," Mr. Zhong said. "The strength of the association is probably more important than the [duration] of exposure. Logos are fairly powerful if they have a strong association."