Does buying a Snickers bar instead of a Milky Way improve a baseball team's chance to win? You can't prove it doesn't - and for that reason the most superstitious baseball fans have little brand loyalty beyond their baseball team.
A paper in the Journal of Consumer Research by Gita V. Johar of Columbia Business School and Eric J. Hamerman of Tulane University shows a sports fan will easily switch to a different product if the fan believes the new brand will bring about good luck or eliminate bad luck. Routines are simultaneously that important and completely malleable, they say.
This is well known about sports fans. A recent Bud Light commercial shows the odd ways in which NFL fans root for their teams, with the tag line: "It's only weird if it doesn't work."
During one of the experiments in the study, participants were given Snickers just prior to watching their college compete in a simulated quiz bowl game. Their team started off poorly, but as the score improved, researchers distributed Snickers during simulated refreshment breaks. When the experiment ended — with the game still in progress — the researchers offered subjects a Kit Kat or Snickers.
"You would expect most people to choose Kit Kat since they've already had so many Snickers. But about half the time, people chose Snickers," Johar said.
The series of experiments led the scholars to conclude that consumers tend to build associations between their use of a product and the desired performance outcome. Assuming the product will impact the outcome, fans will sacrifice brand loyalty.
They say the study also shows that people know there is no rational support for the superstition but this knowledge won't alter their intended action. In fact, people believe that their superstitious behavior — choosing a less-preferred brand that is associated with a desired outcome for example — works. The experiments show that people predict that their desired outcome is more likely to occur after they use the product previously associated with that outcome.
"It can be stressful when you want your team to win, but can't do anything about it," says Johar. "Superstition is one way that people can feel that they gain control over an uncertain situation."
With major league baseball having recently expanded the number of teams that make the playoffs, more fans have hope that their team will be playing in the postseason, and they are incredibly impressionable right now. Johar suggests this insight provides an opportunity for brand marketers to make sure they are associated with the team's success. For example, firms could sponsor specific actions (such as home runs and victories). Imagine a TV announcer telling viewers after each home run, "Some of our fans must have been drinking Budweiser!"
For fans, it's important to remember that there are other ways to control the stress of uncertainty besides superstition. One study demonstrated that superstition was less likely to occur after participants completed a self-affirmation exercise. "When you remind yourself of your own personal self-worth," said Johar, "you are able to directly confront the possibility that your team might lose without resorting to superstition."
Good thing they have academics in business school to remind them, though winning would seem to be self-affirmation enough.