Remembering the Bad, the Good and the Non-Existent

Published on: 01/28/2013
Posted on: 01/28/2013
Tagged with: false memories
Earlier research has shown that consumers may erroneously recall entire experiences or details about experiences that did not occur. These false memories are important because they have downstream effects on consumer attitudes and behaviors. In novel research, SMU Cox Marketing Professor Priyali Rajagopal and co-author Nicole Montgomery explore how brand commitment influences "false memories." Firms need to understand how to protect their turf from this subtle form of manipulation, especially with online reviews taking up more of consumers' mental bandwidth.

In past research, the authors showed that exposure to a high imagery ad for a product resulted in false beliefs about past experience with the product; consumers' attitudes were even as strong as those resulting from actual experience with the product. The authors have furthered the research agenda in this emerging area, in fact pioneering much of the work. Importantly they also reveal that the use of vivid brand information can have significant effects not only on attitudes but brand commitment levels.

The Apple Watch?
Brand commitment, or the “psychological attachment” of an individual to a brand, is an important influencer on the impact of information on product evaluations. The committed resist information that is contrary to their attitudes and beliefs, and instead prefer to process information that supports their positive revelations about the brand. Rajagopal offers, "Different consumers have different levels of liking a brand. If people like a particular brand, we found in our research they actually have more positive false memories." Low commitment consumers are not attached to a brand, and therefore tend to change their attitudes more readily in response to new information.

Have you seen the new, sleek, elegant Apple watch? The highly committed Apple fan might believe they have seen one, given the right prompt. "You can be persuaded you have had a positive experience," explains Rajagopal. "If you are not committed to a brand, the good and the bad are pretty much the same. However if you really like a brand, you will not believe you had a negative experience. For example, if you are an Apple-only laptop user and Dell persuades you that you had a bad experience with a MacBook Air, you will not believe it.  If you are neutral, and not Apple-committed, you will be more likely to believe it." 

Brand commitment becomes a very important segmentation variable. Rajagopal suggests that if marketers can segment consumers as high and low, "we know the low commitment person is more malleable from a memory perspective. Negative ads might be more influential with them, while with high-commitment folks, it is unlikely." She concludes that marketers should spend more of their efforts and resources on those highly committed to their brand or product.

The Online Wild West
The authors explore a previously unexamined route by which false beliefs about product experience may arise — word of mouth. This includes the world of online reviews, which is like the Wild, Wild West of word-of-mouth advertising. Rajagopal notes, "Marketers have to find a way to manage online reviews' impact. It is a black hole right now. Nobody knows what's going on."  As a consumer, retailers such as allow visitors to read product reviews but their staff filters them. 

"The problem with false memories is that I can read an online review and walk away thinking I had that same experience, which is very dangerous," Rajagopal says. "The online world is totally unregulated. Because word-of-mouth is an important conveyor of false memories, they are increasingly important." She adds that more firm are managing their reputation through online vendors like, as this need becomes more pressing.

What can firms do to counter this nascent problem that the deluge of accessible information brings? "Memory is so easily manipulated that it is hard to contain effects with online reviews or negative ads," says Rajagopal. Ads can be controlled however more easily. Firms need to monitor their online image more carefully and thoroughly because the effects of false memories are hard to reverse."  Rajagopal also mentions that the people who tend to evaluate products or services are often ones that are weighted toward being happy, unhappy or paid reviewers, while the dissatisfied complain more. So there is already a bias toward negative reviews— the satisfied 90% do not say anything.

Build commitment
In conclusion, Rajagopal points out that a bad review will not influence the high-committed Apple aficionado or the 'Droid does' crowd. Negative memories do not take root with high-committed consumers; commitment to a brand serves as a shield or barrier or defense against negative memories. "Focus on brand commitment," she summarizes, "then you do not have to worry about the impact of false memories."

A false memory effect is a very subtle manipulation and hard to reverse. Developing brand commitment is therefore crucial. Can everyone do it? Rajagopal says not every product allows for the building of brand commitment but a firm can aim to get stronger attitudes about their products. Memory reconstruction is an additional route by which highly-committed consumers protect their brand connection, and this underscores the importance of fostering and maintaining high levels of commitment among key consumer segments.

The paper "Remembering the Best of Times or the Worst of Times? The Moderating Role of Brand Commitment on False Product Experience Memories" by Priyali Rajagopal of Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University and Nicole Montgomery of William and Mary College is under review.

Written by Jennifer Warren.

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