If you take a moment to look at the products you purchase and the logos of companies you interact with, you might be surprised at the number that are looking back at you.
Anthropomorphism—humanizing nonhuman entities such as animals and objects—is common in business today. The Amazon logo resembles a smile, the fronts of cars may be designed to look like faces, and many of us speak with Alexa or Siri on a regular basis.
Businesses have figured out that when a new product is likely to take consumers out of their comfort zones, giving it a person-like name or a friendly face can make it feel familiar. Humans are used to interacting with other humans.
The allure of following in those footsteps and connecting positively with a customer base may be enticing for small businesses, but that could be risky. There’s evidence that not all people react the same to the face staring back from an app or bottled drink.
If a personified product is supposed to make you feel like you do when dealing with people, consider how customer service experiences differ for those from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Those at the top of the ladder—such as wealthy and high-status individuals—tend to enjoy the way they’re treated by a salesperson.
Those lower down the ladder are likely to have more negative interactions with people in those same situations. If customers have bad experiences with the people who represent businesses, an anthropomorphized product may dredge up bad feelings and have less appeal.
We mimicked those feelings in a study a few years ago. We asked half of a group of people to write about a time in which they felt powerful, and the other half to describe a situation in which they felt powerless. The participants were then shown a slot machine and asked how much they were comfortable gambling and whether they felt like they’d win. Both the powerful and powerless were willing to gamble similar amounts and considered their likelihood of winning about the same.
Another group of people in the experiment were shown a slot machine with a design that resembled a face. The powerful-feeling participants were willing to gamble more and were confident they could win. The powerless-feeling group members wanted to wager less and thought they were more likely to lose.
In other words, status didn’t matter when interacting with a machine. But once the machine felt like a person, the powerless-feeling people associated the interaction with greater risk.
As a small-business owner, then, you’ll need to consider your customer base and how it might change. Wealthy consumers tend to be earlier adopters of new products and technologies. They may be drawn to a human-sounding name or a friendly face.
But if your business’s future depends on more average consumers or a widening pool of customers, you may not want to risk that some of them could perceive a smile as a smirk.
Ann L. McGill is Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing, and Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth.
This column is part of the Chicago Booth Insights series, a partnership with Crain’s Chicago Business, in which Booth faculty offer advice for small businesses and entrepreneurs on the basis of their research.