Want customer loyalty? Be there when they're scared and alone. That's the primary finding of a recent study from the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. 

In the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, UBC's Lea Dunn and JoAndrea Hoegg demonstrated that consumers experiencing fear while watching a film feel a greater affiliation with a present brand than those who watch films evoking happiness, sadness or excitement.

Why does this finding matter? For one thing, it runs counter to general industry marketing. Typically, there are fewer product placements in horror films compared to other genres.

For another, it's a branding wake-up call to marketers in all categories--not just those whose products (like Coke) can be around when a movie is playing. "Marketers are afraid of fear. Their worries about negative associations outweigh their desire to tap into the massive market commanded by fear-based entertainment such as horror films or video games," notes Dunn in ScienceDaily. 

"But our study shows advertisers should consider offering up their brands as something to cling to in the dark when the knives come out and the blood starts to splatter."

I recently talked with Dunn about the surprising and interesting findings. Here's our conversation. 

Though your study focused on movies, do you believe it would hold up in other scary, solitary settings? For example, might a driver, alone during a long scary rainy drive at night, become attached to her vehicle, her brand of tires, her windshield wipers?

What we (JoAndrea Hoegg and I) show in the paper is that the presence of the brand is enough to help people cope with the feeling of fear.

The next logical step is that fear outside of a controlled setting like a movie experience should have the same effect. Unlike your examples, our studies focused on brands that couldn't be instrumental in helping the consumers deal with the fearful situation. We wanted to see if brands that were simply present in the environment (i.e., food during a movie experience) might allow for consumers to cope with fear and enhance emotional attachment.

The theory in the paper is that when we are afraid, we want to share that experience with others and when others are not present, we can successfully share that experience with an available brand. So, I would, like you, speculate that if the lights were out and I was afraid, the fact that the brand of flashlight was there with me during the experience might be enough for me to feel more emotionally attached even after the lights came back on. However, I cannot speak directly to this point given the nature of our studies.

How are your findings applicable, say, to non-consumer products companies?

In general, a fear element is not going to fit for all brands, because, of course, for many brands it would not make sense to scare consumers.

But a broader point is that consumers can form relationships with brands in similar ways to how they form relationships with humans.

Running with this concept, a takeaway point could be that a brand is more than just the product it is attached to. One of our studies found that consumers didn't need to touch or physically consume the product to show higher emotional brand attachment after a fear experience. Instead, the brands could simply be present and consumers would still show higher attachment.

This study shows that there is potential for a brand--be it simply a logo--regardless of whether it is a consumer product or a non-consumer product to fulfill consumers' needs.

Thus, if brands could find a way to get their logo into a consumer's hands (e.g., promotional items) or on their radars (e.g., new media forms such as advergames or social media options) then they might be able to see enhanced emotional attachment through fear.