Psychological contracts with buddies and brands

Walking down an aisle at my grocery store the other day, I happened to notice a particularly well stocked section of the fridge. This section was literally full to the brim with untouched products; all belonging to the same unfortunate brand.

Why was this section untouched? Well, the brand had recently been the subject of a massive public health recall – a crisis of trust and loyalty that was still apparently playing on the minds of its former customers.

Looking at this pile of untouched food, I recalled some interesting research I‘d read on ‘psychological contracts’ (For Example: The psychological contract in retrospect and prospect). Just like a normal contract, a psychological contract is an agreement between people that contains a number of mutual expectations. Unlike a normal contract, a psychological contract occurs in the mind and often remains unspoken, unwritten and even unconscious.

According to the research, people are involved in making (and potentially breaking) psychological contracts every day; at home and in-store, with buddies and with brands.

Psychological contracts with buddies:

Consider how many things in a friendship or relationship are agreed upon but never actually spoken or written down. For example, do you have a written contract with your best friend not to sleep with their spouse? Probably not. However, if you did sleep with their spouse, what are the chances of your friendship surviving?

This is a simple and common-sense example of a psychological contract that exists between friends - two people who have chosen to exchange loyalty and trust for friendship and companionship. As humans, we inherently understand the ramifications of sleeping with a friend’s spouse; it would violate a psychological contract and probably end a friendship.

Psychological contracts with brands:

Just like the psychological contracts that exist between friends, psychological contracts also exist between customers and brands. These contracts can potentially contain thousands of expectations – most of which are unspoken, unwritten and maybe even unconscious.

For example, consider the relationship you have with your brand of bank. Part of this psychological contract may involve respecting your personal privacy. Would your psychological contract be violated if you found out that they sell your financial information to credit-card companies?

Alternatively, consider your brand of peanut butter. Perhaps part of your psychological contract with that brand involves the safety and history of its ingredients. Would your psychological contract be violated if you found out that despite a label indicating ‘Made in the USA’ – the actual peanuts were grown in China and only crushed and canned in the USA?

Both of these are practical examples of expectations that can exist in a psychological contract with a brand and how misunderstandings can lead to feelings of violation.

So what can you take away from these findings on psychological contracts?

Whilst many businesses and brands like to talk the language of friendship, using words like trust and loyalty with their customers - how many actually consider the psychological contracts that they're forming and the subsequent expectations they must manage?

Just like the contract that exists between friends, contracts with brands contain psychological expectations that are unlikely to be written down or verbalized. Whilst something unwritten and unspoken can be unappealing to try and manage; turning a blind eye won’t make it go away. In fact the pile of untouched food in my grocery store was practical proof that a contract in the mind is just as powerful as a contract on paper.