Human & Social

Consumers do not care much when brands get ripped off


There’s quite a bit of science behind what consumers think about brands. And how they think about them even when their favourite labels or companies are being ripped off, writes Engela Duvenage,


Big businesses that feel slighted that their logos have been ripped off on a quirky T-shirt do not need to court to try and save face. No financial harm will come to them, because consumers actually show little reaction to attempts to tarnish a brand, says Prof. Christo Boshoff of the Department of Business Management at Stellenbosch University. His research is the first to shed some light on consumers’ emotional responses to so-called brand tarnishment.

Credit: Justin Nurse -
Credit: Justin Nurse –

Brand tarnishment and the responses of business firms in protecting their brands against economic harm have been controversial topics for many years. One caveat in the history of court cases on such matters is the absence of any investigation about consumers’ emotional responses to brand dilution in general, and to brand tarnishment in particular.

Prof. Boshoff therefore set out to use neurophysiological methods to test the subconscious or emotional response of consumers. Forty participants were shown tainted versions of the logos of twelve established international brands. Electroencephalography (EEG) measured participants’ brain activity and emotional response, while electromyography (EMG) was used to detect even the slightest movement in their facial muscles as an expression of emotion.

The results show that at the unconscious level, brand tarnishment is not as harmful as many seem to believe. In fact, consumers stand largely neutral to any efforts to blemish the good name of a brand. This suggests that businesses will in all likelihood not suffer severe economic harm due to such actions. It would therefore be unnecessary and probably ineffective for them to revert to legal action such as court cases or even the use of cease and desist letters.

“Consumers are wise enough to be able to differentiate between different forms of tarnishment, and seem to in particular not frown upon examples that involve social commentary,” explains Prof. Boshoff. “This may be because the consumer agrees with the commentary provided, or may even find it mildly amusing and not of a serious nature.”

He believes that the results add credence to calls to restrict the legal protection of trademarks.

“Given the volume of global social media activity, business firms will simply have to learn to deal with being ripped-off by their competitors and by the customers of their competitors,” adds Prof. Boshoff.

“It would as foolhardy to ignore social commentary and to avoid using the benefits that technology offers in terms of dramatically shortened advertisement production times to counter brand tarnishment, as it would be to resort to drawn-out legal battles,” he believes.

* This article is based on a press release written for the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at Stellenbosch University.

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