GLOBAL: Consumers are more likely to support brands that use faces in their imagery because people have a fundamental need to form and sustain relationships, a recent academic study has found.

The research project for the University of Oregon established that when people miss social connections, they often attempt to fill the void in other ways and that extends to their purchasing habits.

And the effect is even more pronounced among consumers who feel lonely, according to the research, which was published recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

“Previous research linked our need for social connection with consumer behaviour and judgment, but very little was understood about the role that visuals play in social connection and brand likability,” explained Ulrich Orth from the University of Bern in Switzerland and a co-author of the report.

“Our study builds on prior research by demonstrating that seeing a face in a brand visual increases a consumer’s liking of the brand, especially if they feel lonely,” he added.

“A lack of interpersonal relationships motivates people to actively search for sources of connection,” agreed co-author Bettina Cornwell, Professor of Marketing in the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon.

“Individuals who are lonely are more likely to find faces in visuals because they so greatly desire this social connection," she said.

The academics reached their conclusion after Cornwell, who has a background in art, created an original set of 18 drawings that included both non-face images and ones that clearly depicted human faces.

Fictitious brand names and slogans to accompany mock ads were also developed and participants were then asked to answer questions about the brand, the images and themselves.

According to the researchers, the results indicated a significant effect on brand likability when respondents saw a face in the brand's visuals, while also demonstrating a link between high rates of loneliness, the tendency to imagine a face in a non-face drawing and their likability of the brand.

“Visuals can fill a void for consumers experiencing a lack of social connection,” Cornwell said. “When people see faces in branding materials, their likeability for that brand goes up.”

Data sourced from University of Oregon, European Journal of Social Psychology; additional content by WARC staff