How secret love for a product may intensify your connection to it

TU marketing professor Veronica Thomas explores why some people won’t reveal a favorite

Veronica Thomas at desk

It started with a game of footsie. 

As a doctoral candidate at Kent State University, Veronica Thomas came across a study
that found participants who secretly touched feet during an experiment felt an intensified
attraction to each other, more so than participants who told others about the behavior.

“While I was researching for my Ph.D., a study came out that said brand relationships
mirrored interpersonal relationships,” says Thomas, now a member of Towson University’s
marketing department faculty in the College of Business & Economics. “I wanted to see if brand secrecy was one of the bridges that connected those relationships.”  

Partnering with Robert Jewell, chair of Kent State’s Department of Marketing and Entrepreneurship,
Thomas conducted several experiments to measure covert devotion. It wasn’t easy, which
is perhaps why research in this area is limited. Read Thomas’s and Jewells study, “I Can’t Get You Out of My Head: The Influence of Secrecy on Consumers’ Self-Brand

“It’s incredibly challenging to design an experiment and measure results when the
premise is to find if people are lying about something,” she laughs.

Thomas and Jewell first conducted a survey of nearly 400 people to assess the ways
they keep or have ever kept their brand consumption a secret. They found 66 percent
keep at least one brand a secret, but for a variety of reasons.


The most popular motive was fear of judgment (51.2 percent) followed by embarrassment
(38.8 percent) and avoiding conflict with others (35.2 percent).

One of Thomas’s favorite responses to the survey was the woman who said her construction
worker husband was convinced he was allergic to Tide laundry detergent but that it
was the only brand that thoroughly cleaned his clothes. She admitted to buying Tide
and pouring it into another brand’s container.

The study also involved mailing granola to 87 college students. One group of students
was told to keep their consumption a secret; the other was not. The study also promoted
a musician to one group of participants. In both cases, the groups instructed to keep
their actions a secret demonstrated higher affinities with the granola and the musician. 

In the vein of Dear Abby, Thomas has some advice for brands and marketers trying to
strengthen their relationships with consumers.

She stresses that companies should be aware of the market climate, particularly for
luxury goods. If the economy turns, they should offer options for discreet purchasing,
like non-logoed packaging. 

Thomas also suggests brands research their consumer bases to see to what degree this
behavior affects them. The ability to leave anonymous reviews is just one alternative
for brands to reach a base that may be passionate, yet not evangelical.

READ:  John F. Kirch | Towson University

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