When you flirt with other brands, you only like your old favorites more

You know I love Coke, but that Pepsi is pretty dreamy.
You know I love Coke, but that Pepsi is pretty dreamy.
Image: Reuters/Kham
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Hearing good things about your favorite product’s competitor may actually increase your appreciation of the brand you already prefer, research shows. Harvard Business School behavioral scientist Francesca Gino writes at Scientific American that a quick flirt with a competing brand can be great news for the companies you frequent.

While flirting with someone else can cause you to devalue your romantic partner, Gino writes, the same sort of “flirting” seems to have the opposite effect when it comes to brand preference. While marketers tend to rely on advertisements that praise their own products and offer incentives to buy them, Gino’s studies have found that seeing competitors’ advertisements actually made consumers more loyal to brands they already expressed a preference for.

In one study (pdf), participants who preferred Coca-Cola to Pepsi and were asked to list positive attributes of the latter brand estimated that they would drink more Coke in the coming week than fans who didn’t complete the exercise. The same was true for Pepsi drinkers who were asked to extol Coke’s virtues.

Later, Gino observed that study participants who chose to watch a competitor’s commercial (the alternative being a much longer promo for their favorite soda brand) later expressed a stronger preference for their brand of choice than those who were forced to watch one commercial over another. This, she writes, indicates that a “perceived initiation of flirting” is the key to success.

Just how one might apply this phenomenon to marketing is tricky: We’re not sure why it even happens, though Gino suggests that brand flirtation may arouse the excitement of change in a consumer, without giving customers enough of an incentive to actually switch products permanently. But it may be time to rethink commercials that compare new products to ones with longtime loyal fans.