A Little Help From My Brands

Earlier this fall, new consumer research from Wharton and Arizona State University uncovered that consumers’ brand preferences shift when they’re experiencing a sense of low control — the inability to encourage good and prevent bad — in their lives. They found that when in this state, consumers sought “helper” brands, which require work from them, rather than “hero” brands, which provide an easy, turn-key solution. This preference may seem counterintuitive at first, but the researchers explained that consumers gain empowerment from playing an active role in the solution, which restores their faith in the possibility of a positive outcome. 

While an interesting finding with clear implications, how do we know who constitutes this low-control audience? And is it worth it for brands to try to understand and craft messaging around what seems like such a nebulous emotion? The short answer — at times, everyone. And yes, it is. 



The researchers explain that low control can be situational (e.g., brought on by economic downturn or the news of violence in one’s neighborhood), or pervasive (common in populations such as the elderly or disabled). Therefore, regardless of whether it’s is experienced for a short while or a longer period of time, there are occasions when everyone may be susceptible to low-control. By understanding the circumstances and situations that can bring on this sentiment in consumers’ lives, brands can position themselves as supportive partners to empower consumers. 

Here are a few examples of brands who have done just that, creating support networks to help consumers achieve a desired outcome:

Under Armour

Under Armour’s 2014 women’s campaign, “I will what I want,” kicked off in July with an ad featuring Misty Copeland, and has been inspiring women to pursue their athletic endeavors ever since. In the spot, Copeland narrates herself dancing, explaining that she was turned down from a ballet academy at the age of 13 due to having “the wrong body for ballet.” Viewers are struck by her strength, intensity, and ability to succeed in the face of adversity. Alongside Copeland, the campaign features a host of female athletes who have been faced with challenges, whether learning to tune out constant critiques as a model (in the case of Gisele Bundchen) or overcome recurring injuries (ski racer Lindsey Vonn).

According to Under Armour, “I will what I want” represents “…a reminder that the best things in life aren’t given. They’re earned.” Under Armour isn’t encouraging women to overcome challenges by buying premium fitness apparel. The brand is instead asking them to look inside at what is most important to them, and then work hard to get it, thereby empowering them to take charge of their own destiny. The payoff is clear for the brand, which has seen more than 20% sales growth for each subsequent quarter for over four and a half years.

Weight Watchers 

The weight loss brand launched a new ad recently, which displays our complex relationship with food, highlighting that nearly every emotion is tied in some way to eating, from happy to sad and everything in between. At the end of the ad, the screen fades to black and the words “help with the hard part” appear. Weight Watchers has long touted its support network as a major factor in weight loss success; the company’s founder originally welcomed friends into her home to discuss weight loss strategies. Keeping with tradition, Weight Watchers’ next move is to roll out custom support plans later this month. Instead of offering a miracle solution or supplement to aid in weight loss, the organization realizes the struggle that weight loss presents, and offers unwavering support throughout their customers’ journey towards health.


Ikea’s model is based off of a “democratic design process,” in which “we do our part, you do your part, together we save money.” If you’ve ever experienced the wonders of Ikea first hand, you know how easy it is to, first, be inspired by the designs laid out in the in-store labyrinth, and second, get overwhelmed when sitting amongst wooden panels, oddly-shaped nuts and bolts, and cartoon instructions. Consumers often turn to Ikea during transitions in their lives, times that (whether happy or sad) could easily provide kindling for feelings of low control, such as moving into a new apartment, preparing for a baby, or re-designing an office space. The hands-on construction that Ikea requires of its consumers enables them to feel a sense of accomplishment and ownership when it comes to their new space.

Under Armour, Weight Watchers, and Ikea are just a few brands that have succeeded in positioning themselves as “helpers.” By providing a solution that empowers consumers to overcome challenge and gain control, they build meaningful and authentic relationships with their consumers. And this is something that every marketer knows is no easy feat.

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