The stereotype content model: A social psychology theory as a framework for brand perception and user experience work



Social psychology theories like the stereotype content model may have a huge impact in your user experience work, as more and more interactions between companies and customers take place through a „digital window“ called a user interface. The perception and therefore the behaviour of digital interfaces had become more and more important to brand perception. This can serve as a basis for improving your customer loyalty as a growing body of research suggests that people have emotional relationships with brands that resemble relations between people.

„If we want users to like our software we should design it to behave like a likeable person: respectful, generous and helpful“

Cooper, A.(1999) The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Why High-Tech Products Drive us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity

This article refers to a book and some classes I took during my psychology course. Earlier this year I finished reading „The Human Brand“ written by social psychologist Susan T. Fiske and Chris Malone, a brand consultant. I’m a huge fan of Fiske’s work since the stereotype content model and its main dimensions of warmth and competence were introduced to our course during the first semester in psychology. It’s based on solid research and it helps to explain how we perceive other people.

Before considering why social psychology principles can be useful for your product/brand success I will ask three (rhetorical) questions upfront: One about your preferred company-customer interaction, one about your preferred brand perception and one about your relationship toward inanimate objects.

1) If you had the choice what would you chose?

A short termed more profit based approach or customers who really love you – which may be a slower but more long-termed approach?
Today, most companies are separated from the direct product-customer interaction.
Online shops often seem impersonal and if the same product is available somewhere else for less money, you’ll go and buy it there. In this case customer behaviour is short termed and more price-focused – there is no loyalty attached to a specific brand or company.
But you may have realized some kind of movement: Small shops and companies, those who prefer a direct company-customer interaction and a personal approach towards their customers gain more and more interest – even if they are more expensive. This is because their customers feel engaged to those companies in an emotional way. They feel valued as a person because they experience a direct, personal relationship. This experience generates positive feelings towards the company. People value this personal, more emotional approach over money. These relationships are associated with trust, too.

2) How would you like your brand/product to be perceived?

Do you take care that your digital product meets this desired perception?
We all (hopefully) know that a brand consists not only of a logo, a claim and some corporate colors. A brand is much more. It’s made up by the people who interact, see and perceive that brand – or get in touch with it somehow. It’s a combination of subtle cues, feelings and emotions they have towards this product/brand and the company behind. These „touchpoints“ could be for example your customer service agent, your product itself, your TV commercial, a sales person, your newsletter, the CEO talking in a TV Show, your social media presence and the tone of voice over there, a simple flyer and of course your website (app, digital product).
Thinking of that, I guess it’s clear that a user interface (of a website, an app or any digital product) always represents your brand – it’s simply how your company communicates with its customers – through a digital interface. The fact that this communication happens via an digital interface does not mean this communication is less important.

You get it: Everything that communicates to the outside world represents your brand and forms an image of an „personality“ (brand personality) within peoples heads. But this doesn’t mean that you are out of control.

No company would give a job to people like a customer service agent or a anyone with customer contact who is rude, not polite or behaves intrusive – but sadly, digital products often behave exactly this way: they are intrusive, rude, unfriendly and anything but polite. Negative behaviour or any negative perceived interaction will definitely shape how your brand – and therefore company – is perceived by people. It can’t be your goal that this should be a negative image.

So careful considerations about the user interface which is used by your clients, customers or your employees is worth all the time! This is not just about the „look and feel“, the visual interface – it’s also about the behaviour and frequently it even goes beyond the digital world – it can also affect „analogous“ company structures like i.e an „analogous“ workflow in special scenarios like, for example the a „cancel subscription/account“ process.

3) Have you ever yelled at your computer?

Yes? Congrats, you’re applying social heuristics to inanimate things
People often describe their relationships with things, brands and companies mostly in a human way – for example: we love apple products, we hate our printer, we even yell at inanimate objects like printers or copy machines for example.
Why do we do that, why do we describe those things in a „human“ way? I mean, its clear the printer won’t hear you and it don’t care.
So, people apply the same social heuristics used for human-to-human interactions to products and brands because they (the products and brands) call to mind similar social attributes as fellow humans do.

Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves, both professors at Stanford University, demonstrated in their famous book „The media Equation.How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places“ (1996) that humans react to computers in the same way they react to other humans. Susan Fiske and Chris Malone, authors of the above mentioned book „The human brand“, evaluated over 45 companies across 10 seperate studies of how people perceive these companies towards the two main categories we use to assess people: Warmth and competence. They claim that people perceive brands in the same way they perceive people.

How social perception theories and processes can predict brand loyalty

The Stereotype Content Model and its dimensions warmth & competence.
The stereotype content model is a social psychology theory first proposed by social psychologist Susan T. Fiske and her colleagues in 2002. It says that we judge people on two main dimensions: warmth & competence. These judgments also drive our behaviour toward others.
Warmth and competence are universal dimensions of social cognition that enable us to assess our in-group peers as well as foreign groups or group members. It’s a „Is this a friend or foe?“ question and it comes from the old brain.

Warmth and competence drive our emotions and behaviour not only towards other people but even towards inanimate objects like brands & products. The model can serve as a framework how a customer’s experience is linked to brand perception. As we have learned above, a website, digital product or an application represents your brand to the outside world. The visual design and the behaviour – the interactions between a human and a website, digital product or application – mirror the brand’s personality.

Fig.01 | This illustrates the warmth and competence dimensions and their emotional responses and behavioural outcomes. Source: Malone C., Fiske S. (2013) The Warmth & Competence Model. The Human Brand. How we relate to people, products, and companies, S.25


Design for high warmth and high competence

If we perceive a brand high on both dimensions, warm & competent, we guess the brand may have worthy intentions towards us. We trust this brand. It’s like a friend.
But often a company do see itself high at warmth and competence, full of good intentions towards its customers and even praises itself this way – but is not absolutely perceived this way.
When we take a close look often it’s not the famous „customer first“ – but rather a „company first“ approach, that we, as user experience designers, see implemented in digital user interfaces (and even beyond in non digital workflows, too).

Fig. 02 | Where you should aim for: Design for high warmth and high competence – and make it a mindset for all your „touch points“. The stereotype content model and its dimensions warmth and competence


Warmth implies if we can trust someone- it asks: „What are the intentions of someone towards me?“ Warmth is also more important than competence. Of course competence is important too, but when people realize that you do not have a worthy intent towards them, they will go away.
To illustrate the „warmth“ dimension – let’s think of the „delete account“ pattern once again. This is such a good example because it best demonstrates the point where customer goals and business goals are totally different.
Instead of making it easy for people to leave, companies often make it hard for people to delete their accounts or subscriptions – they literally lock the door and force their customers to stay inside. Would you recommend this company to your friends? On the stereotype content model the „rating“ may be low on the warmth dimension and high on the competent dimension, which simply says that the company is competent enough to realize their bad intentions towards us. In this case it’s obvious that the companies intentions seem not friendly – perhaps even hostile towards us. This leads to mistrust. Rude behaviour on social media and customer service hotlines and not reacting to criticism do belong to the same category.

Competence asks the question of how capable they will be in carrying out those (good or bad) intentions. The judgement on this dimension happens shortly after you have „judged“ someone on the warmth dimension.
To illustrate the competent dimension imagine you are interacting with a new software. Imagine you are now confronted with a sloppy, automatically generated translation. This will lead to mistrust as well. It may be rated high on the warmth dimension, but low on the competence dimension.

Fig. 03 | Will you trust this service that it can help you with your questions? (it says literally: “a quarter files. one minute less than“)


Imagine a sloppy written/translated error message appears while such a sensitive process like online shopping or even money transaction. Perhaps you like and trust that service/brand but after that experience chances are high that it may seem less trustworthy to you. If they cannot handle translation on an official service / product website, what else do they lack of / do not care about?

Fig. 04 | Automatically generated translation on a global e-commerce site (here: German) shows both, low competence and therefore low warmth towards customers because they didn’t put effort into a meaningful translation done by a human person: Lack of trust in the respective market may be the consequences.


I hope this article gave an impression how we can use social psychology theories in our daily work as user experience consultants because interacting with a digital product is interaction with your brand.

Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu,l. (2002) A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition.
Malone C., Fiske S. (2013) The Human Brand. How we relate to people, products, and companies.

Image credit
Brain Title Image:

Further reading
The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places, Byron Reeves andClifford Nass (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
How to end a relationship. Ein UX Point Of View: (German) Blogpost I wrote a while ago for our studio blog

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