For many years, some researchers have held the theory that consumers see brands as “partners” in their lives. The idea is that by working in tandem with brands, people feel they move closer to achieving their aspirations and goals.

In a recent study, however, lead author Hyeongmin Kim of Johns Hopkins looks at a different dynamic. Published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the study reports how people with certain personality traits view brands as “servants,” compared with those who see them as partners. These people, the authors say, tend to be materialists who strongly link possessions to happiness. They have a desire to control others but are generally powerless to do so.

Crucial to part of the researchers’ premise is that the brands have to be assigned human attributes. In one part of the study, for example, the group is shown an ad for an Audi SUV. The language accompanying the vehicle’s image read, “Hi! I’m a new car. Please take a good look at me.”

The researchers chose Audi, they say, because it has a likelihood of appealing to materially driven people.

Results of their test supported their hypothesis that materialists’ desire to dominate others actually extends to brands.

It’s an admittedly intriguing notion, and it led me to wonder how it might apply to health care brands. Does the perception of brand as partner or servant affect our patients and their loved ones? Has that been tested and is it worth testing? How might it affect patients’ behaviors, trust in the caregivers and compliance with their own care?

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