The HUMAN Brand: How We Relate to People, Products and Companies

By Chris Malone & Susan T. Fiske

Social science research tells us that over 80 percent of our judgments can be predicted by fundamental warmth and competence perceptions. Below, Chris Malone and Susan T. Fiske discuss how the application of warmth and competence theory can help companies and brands strengthen their relationships with customers, and argue that in an age when social media can make or break reputations, our capacity to express warmth and competence offers huge benefits.


The reality show Survivor, which is also known as Expedition Robinson or Koh-Lanta in some European markets, has proven to be one of the most durable ratings franchises for the CBS network since its American debut in May 2000.  Its first-season finale attracted 52 million viewers, second only to the Super Bowl that year, and since then it has spawned an entire industry of “last player standing” reality show knock-offs. What accounts for such extreme popularity? Perhaps it’s because all these shows tap into something we are hard-wired to recognize and appreciate – the primeval human struggle for survival and the remarkable skills we all possess to perceive, judge, and form mutually-supportive relationships in order to survive. Survivor and all its imitators offer us insights into the eternal, into the essence of being human, rooted in our prehistoric past.

Social psychologists have deduced that primitive humans were forced in their struggle for existence to develop a primal, unconscious ability to make two specific kinds of judgments with a high degree of speed and sufficient accuracy: What are the intentions of other people toward me? How capable are they of carrying out those intentions? Today we judge others almost instantly along these same two categories of social perception, which are known as warmth and competence. Our ability to quickly judge others according to these criteria has been developed and tested for ages through the harsh process of natural selection. Social science research in nearly forty countries now tells us that over 80 percent of our judgments can be predicted by these fundamental warmth and competence perceptions.

We apply warmth and competence judgments in all our relationships, including those involving commercial transactions. Companies and brands have the same capacity to stir up these hard-wired primal passions as people do, so we engage with them on same basis. We experience feelings of affection and admiration for companies and brands that do well by us, and we feel insult or even rage when we believe that those companies have treated us badly.

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