How Heroism Hurts Brands?

A new study by Wharton Professor, Keisha Cutright, has broad implications for Brand building. The study — Doing It the Hard Way: How Low Control Drives Preferences for High-Effort Products and Services — finds that “when people feel a lack of control over their lives, they will seek out products that require them to put in some effort – and in turn reignite their belief in being able to achieve a positive outcome”.  

Hero Brands

Helper Brands


Do it all for you… we make it very easy

We help, but “you have to work really hard”

Athletic Shoe Example

Put on shoes and we’ll do all the work for you

Put on shoes, and if you work really hard, we’ll help you toward your goal of losing weight…


It’s Counterintuitive. I’d expect that when people feel low control over life outcomes, they’d want heroes to ‘rescue’ them. But the study finds that the opposite is true. Feelings of low control are associated with preference for helper, not hero, Brands.

Hero Bias is Problematic. In my experience, there is a general hero-bias among brand builders (not you, of course!). This suggests that many Brand messages don’t resonate because they unknowingly undervalue the importance of empowering consumers.

Demographics and ‘need states’ matter. Demographically, lower income and older consumers tend to feel less control. But all consumers, in some situations or need states, can feel low control (e.g. – a disease diagnosis or stock market crash).

Nicorette® got this right decades ago with “You Can Do It, We Can Help”:

They focused on committed quitters who knew there was no “EASY button”. They knew that they would have to work hard and that they needed help. With the committed quitter target and the “helper” positioning, the value proposition involved a step down patch that helped gradually reduce nicotine intake. As further help, they offered a Committed Quitters Program with personalized tools.

A more recent Nicorette® mini-lozenge ad promises to “help relieve cravings… so you can quit one cigarette at a time. Helps you go from one little win to another until you reach your goal”.

Do these Brands have it right? What do you think? 

  • Cheerios® — Works to bring the benefits of oats to you
  • Special K® – Strengthen your willpower
  • Swiffer® Sweep & Trap – Designed for tackling messes big and small! Rotating blades pick up large particles while a Swiffer Sweeper dry cloth traps dirt and dust
  • Google® – Organize world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful
  • AllState®– You’re in good hands
  • Nationwide® – On your side
  • State Farm® – Like a good neighbor
  • Apple® – Empowering people through technology. Genius Bar at your service.  

What about your brands? Whether explicit or not, most brands convey helper or hero in some way. And as Robert Frost said… “that can make all the difference”.

Article/video on the Wharton study: