For sports fans, brand loyalty is only as strong as their team's next loss, new research shows.
A study by researchers at the Columbia Business School and at Tulane University revealed that superstitious fans are so entrenched in their traditions that they'll quickly drop a product or service they like in exchange for a win. Specifically, sports fans will readily switch to a different product if they believe the new brand will bring about good luck or eliminate bad luck.
"If someone buys a Snickers bar and subsequently begins to see their team improve, they might attribute that performance to their purchase decision," said one of the study's author's, Columbia's Gita Johar.
As part of the study, researchers gave experiment participants a Snickers bar just prior to watching their college compete in a simulated quiz-bowl game. During the experiment, the participants' teams started off poorly, but as the score improved, researchers again passed out Snickers during simulated refreshment breaks. When the experiment ended, with the game still in progress, the researchers offered subjects a Kit Kat or a third Snickers.
"You would expect most people to choose Kit Kat, since they've already had so many Snickers," Johar said. "But about half the time, people chose Snickers."
The researchers said the results show that consumers tend to build associations between their use of a product and the desired performance outcome of their team. Assuming the product will impact a competition's outcome, fans will sacrifice brand loyalty.
The study also shows that people know there is no rational support for the superstition. However, that doesn't stop them from acting the way they do. The researchers said that people, in fact, believe that their superstitious behavior — choosing a less-preferred brand that is associated with a desired outcome, for example — actually works.
"It can be stressful when you want your team to win but can't do anything about it," Johar said. "Superstition is one way that people can feel that they gain control over an uncertain situation."
Researchers suggest this insight provides an opportunity for brand marketers to associate their brand with a team's success. For example, the researchers said companies could sponsor specific actions, like home runs or victories.
Johar said a TV announcer telling viewers after each home run, "Some of our fans must have been drinking Budweiser" could pay off for brands.
The study, co-authored by Tulane's Eric Hamerman, was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research.