Memo to Burger King's new owners: Check out the "warmth" factor while strategizing about how to better differentiate BK from McDonald's. According to a new study, consumers' perceptions of a brand's warmth, in particular, along with perceptions of its competence, heavily influence both their purchase intent and loyalty. The research, conducted by business/customer/brand relationship consultancy Relational Capital Group and a team of Princeton University researchers led by Susan T. Fiske and Nicolas O. Kervyn, confirmed that consumers assess brands in much the same way that they do people: By sizing up a brand's intentions toward them and its ability to carry through on those intentions, explains Chris Malone, Relational's chief advisory officer and a former CMO for companies such as Aramark Corp. and Choice Hotels. In addition to probing the general dynamics involved, the study evaluated the effects of consumers' warmth and competence perceptions in regard to eight major brands, including McDonald's and Burger King, BP and Shell Oil, Advil and Tylenol, and Tropicana and Minute Maid. Together, perceptions of warmth and competence were found to account for 46% of the variance in consumers' intent to purchase and 50% of loyalty toward brands. However, a particularly key finding, according to Malone, was that two of the factors that go into determining overall perceptions of warmth are especially predictive of brand loyalty: "is honest and trustworthy" and "acts in my best interest." Tellingly, consumers ranked all brands (except BP) higher on competence than warmth, and all eight brands studied fell short of consumers' expectations on those two critical honesty/acts-in-best-interest warmth dimensions. "This may be why even successful national brands struggle to develop lasting brand loyalty," says Malone. "A steady stream of corporate and brand scandals has only intensified consumer cynicism." Consumers' perceptions of the honesty and intentions of a brand seem to come into play in determining the impact of a brand or product crisis. Not surprisingly, given its disastrous oil spill and subsequent crisis management missteps, BP was ranked the lowest among all the brands on both brand loyalty and purchase intent (3 and 3.7, respectively, on a scale of 1 to 10) -- and its scores on honesty/acts-in-best interest (along with other factors) were also the lowest. Shell fared somewhat better (ranked 5 on loyalty and 6.3 on purchase intent), and had higher rankings than BP on the various specific factors, including honesty and acts-in-best interests. Meanwhile, notes Malone, despite all of its recent product troubles, Tylenol ranked slightly higher than Advil on both purchase intent and loyalty: Tylenol and Advil ranked 7.4 and 7.3, respectively, on purchase intent, and 6.6 and 6.4 on brand loyalty. The brands ranked highest were Tropicana and Minute Maid, with respective rankings of 7.9 and 7.8 on purchase intent and 6.8 and 6.6 on brand loyalty. The nation's two largest restaurant chains, meanwhile, fell in the middle in relation to the other brands studied. McDonald's and Burger King were respectively ranked 7.6 and 7.1 on purchase intent, and 6.6 and 6.2 on brand loyalty. Looking more closely at factors contributing to brand loyalty for each of these two QSRs, the study found that in both cases, consumers consider factors such as delivering a consistent experience and being a competent, capable, friendly and basically warm brand as the expected "price of entries" for their business. The primary brand loyalty factors cited by consumers for each chain were also very similar: honest and trustworthy, delivers on promises, acts in your best interests, worth the investment, high-quality assistance and listens well/understands needs. In terms of consumers' assessments of relative strengths and weaknesses, McDonald's bested or matched Burger King on all factors measured -- showing the biggest advantages on "popular and recommended" and "delivers consistent experience." Both chains were ranked 7.6 on the key honesty factor, and they ranked very closely on the acts-in-best-interests factor (McDonald's at 7.1, BK at 7). However, Malone points out that these rankings indicate that both chains are underperforming against consumer expectations in these two critical measures. In brand positioning and marketing terms, this points to important opportunities for both chains -- and perhaps for BK, in particular, notes Malone. "Whereas it seems that it will be an uphill battle for Burger King to gain leverage against McDonald's by competing on an operational level," Burger King might find differentiation by focusing on the two warmth factors, where McDonald's doesn't yet have a real advantage, he says. The study, conducted by an independent third-party research firm, was based on responses from 1,000 consumers, representative of the U.S. adult population, to an online questionnaire.