The Marmite effect: it's better to be a polarising brand that people love or hate than to be ignored

LONDON - Many British brands can polarise public opinion, provoking implacable loathing in some, and deeply felt affection in others. However, as exclusive research from FreshMinds reveals, it is the brands that elicit indifference from consumers that should be most concerned.

The Marmite effect: it's better to be a polarising brand that people love or hate than to be ignored

Oscar Wilde once famously suggested: 'There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.'

In an era of blogging and social networking, brands are being talked about more than ever. Marketers recognise the importance of nurturing a network of passionate brand advocates so attached to a particular brand that they are willing to recommend it to others. However, a brand capable of prompting a positive response among some consumers can have the opposite effect on others.

When Marketing has previously run research to identify the UK's most-loved and most-hated brands, there were many that topped both lists. In fact, our exclusive research from FreshMinds into the responses brands elicit from consumers could be taken to suggest that simply by virtue of being 'much-loved' by one group of consumers, a brand inevitably alienates another.

For example, 28% of people who love Tesco say this is because of its customer service. However, customer service is also cited by 22% of those who hate the brand as the reason for their opposing view of the retailer. Coca-Cola faces a similar split: 27% of those who love the brand say it is because of its advertising, while 24% of those who hate it find its ads 'irritating'.

As ever, most of the brands at the top of the most-hated list are highly successful. However, this does not imply that, to be successful, a brand must put off a sect-ion of its potential customer base. Heinz, Cadbury and Marks & Spencer, for example, have remained best -sellers without turning off big numbers of consumers.

'As a nation, we're famous for our love of the underdog, so hating big brands is something of a national pastime,' says Alistair Leathwood, managing director of FreshMinds. 'However, when it comes to doing the weekly shop or getting a quick bite to eat, consumers still spend cash on the brands they are proud to hate.'

Top 10 'Marmite' brands

Brand Love Don't care Hate
1 Marmite 45% 14% 40%
2 KFC 43% 19% 38%
3 Burger King 37% 24% 39%
4 McDonald's 36% 18% 46%
5 Pepsi 42% 28% 30%
6 Sky 47% 23% 30%
7 BBC 35% 36% 30%
8 Domino's 29% 40% 31%
9 Coca-Cola 51% 22% 27%
10 Primark 46% 27% 27%

Most-loved and most-hated brands

In an unprompted strand of the research, consumers were asked to name any three brands they loved and three they hated. They were also asked to give the reason for their feelings. In total, 700 brands were mentioned.

What makes a hated brand?

A lack of quality and reliability were the most commonly cited reasons for hating a brand. Being perceived as 'not good value for money' was the most frequent criticism made by respondents. Others included poor customer service, irritating advertising, instilling a lack of trust and 'only copying what others do'.

Inevitably, some ubiquitous corporate names topped the most-hated list. Two of the UK's biggest brands - McDonald's and Tesco - took first and second place. Some, such as Primark and Nestle, were singled out for their perceived poor ethical record. Others, such as Sky and BT, which provide an important everyday service, arouse consumer anger when they go wrong.

Top 10 most-hated brands

Brand Mentions Share
1 McDonald's 86 3%
2 Tesco 67 1%
3 Coca-Cola 42 1%
4 Primark 42 1%
5 BT 34 1%
6 Sky 33 1%
7 British Gas 32 1%
8 Marmite 32 1%
9 Asda 31 1%
10 Nestle 30 1%

What makes a loved brand?

Britain's love affair with the kitchen cupboard shows no sign of abating, and six of the top 10 most-loved brands were related to food and drink. Moreover, two retailers (Tesco and Marks & Spencer) ranked highly on the list.

The cliche that a great product is at the heart of every successful brand was borne out by the research.

In 60% of cases, consumers said they loved a brand because the associated product or service is 'always perfect'.

It also appears that consumers appreciated consistency over innovation, with trust, quality and reliability all scoring highly. Notably, more respondents cited good advertising as a stronger reason for loving a brand than good customer service.

Top 10 most-loved brands

Brand Mentions Share
1 Cadbury 111 4%
2 Heinz 103 3%
3 Sony 101 3%
4 Marks & Spencer 85 3%
5 Kellogg 67 2%
6 Tesco 60 2%
7 Coca-Cola 50 2%
8 Nike 48 2%
9 Nescafe 43 1%
10 Panasonic 42 1%

What is a 'Marmite' brand?

Brands that combine four out of the five elements below often polarise consumer sentiment

Familiarity If people are not aware of a product and have never tried it, they will neither love it nor hate it. This is the reason finance and travel brands top the 'most-indifferent' brands list. In contrast, food, consumed by everyone on a daily basis, is a far more emotive subject.

Dominance This is both a cause and an effect - polarising opinion helps a brand make an impact and become successful as a result. However, too much success inevitably angers some people.

A product people can taste In a brand survey, respondents inevitably equate the product with the brand, and food is the ultimate personal experience.

Cheapness This drives a wedge between those who like savings and those who do not want to look poor or stingy. The research suggests that cheapness is more polarising than expensiveness.

The power of marketing The final element is a bold marketing strategy, which deliberately provokes a strong response in consumers, for good or ill.

Brands we don't care about

While a focus on the UK's most-loved and most-hated brands may make for good headlines, the real concern for marketers is avoiding consumer indifference. Far worse than a brand that polarises opinion is one that fails to ignite any interest at all. Notably, seven of the top 10 most-indifferent brands are in the finance and insurance categories.

Despite the catastrophic downturn in the economy, most investment banks have, in contrast to their high-street equivalents, escaped public scorn. They may have pumped millions into promoting their brands, but they have failed to make a dent on the consciousness of many consumers.

Brands we don't care about

Brand Love Don't care Hate
1 UBS 6% 75% 19%
2 Morgan Stanley 7% 74% 19%
3 JP Morgan 4% 72% 24%
4 Hyatt 25% 69% 6%
5 Bank of America 4% 68% 27%
6 AIG 8% 68% 25%
7 STA Travel 17% 68% 16%
8 Goldman Sachs 5% 67% 20%
9 ING 19% 66% 15%
10 Four Seasons 26% 66% 8%


Despite the phenomenal growth of social networking sites in the UK, Facebook and Twitter provoked the greatest number of negative responses, with 42% of respondents 'disliking somewhat' or 'hating' them. This may be a result of consumers' fears of 'cyber-stalking' or their waning enthusiasm for being virtually updated on their friends' activities every minute. TV channels ITV and Paramount were the most-loved media brands with 74% and 67% of consumers either 'liking somewhat' or 'loving' them. BSkyB was the most polarising brand in the sector. It is notable that, as consumers get older, their attitudes to media brands become more negative. Of the consumers who said they hated media brands, 76% were over 65, while 70% of those who loved them fell into the 18- to 25-year-old age group.

Food and drink

Of all the sectors, consumers felt most strongly about food and drink. The two most-loved food brands were Heinz and Walkers.

A total of 77% of respondents said they loved or liked the Heinz brand while 74% of respondents liked Walkers. The least-loved food and drink brand was Red Bull, with 51% of respondents stating they either disliked or hated it.

Supermarkets were generally viewed positively, with Sainsbury's being the most popular. Waitrose was an exception to this, eliciting high levels of indifference from consumers. Respondents from the South were more likely to like or love premium brands and dislike or hate economy brands, such as Asda and Burger King, than those in other regions. There were also gender divisions, with 41% of women loving or liking the Evian brand compared with 27% of men.


Somewhat surprisingly, travel brands failed to provoke strong emotional responses in respondents. While the traditional week in the sunshine has remained sacrosanct for the British, despite the downturn, the lack of daily contact between travel brands and consumers may go some way to explaining the indifference. Despite the fiasco surrounding the launch of Heathrow's Terminal 5 last year, British Airways remained one of the UK's most-loved brands, with positive views expressed by 51% of respondents. This positive attitude extended to other premium airline brands, but budget carriers attracted more negative opinions: easyJet (24%) and Ryanair (36%) were least popular.


Two brands from opposite ends of the price spectrum - namely Primark and Burberry - topped the most-hated list in this sector, attracting the opprobrium of 27% and 28% of respondents respectively. Primark, which has been widely slated in the press for its ethic-al record, polarised consumers, as it was also the most-loved brand. There were strong differences between male and female responses to fashion brands. For example, men do not share women's fondness for premium fashion. While 57% of female respondents loved or liked Chanel, just 25% of men felt the same about the notoriously expensive label. Fashion brands, particularly those based on the high street, also showed signs of putting older consumers off.

For example, 59% of respondents over the age of 55 were indifferent to H&M compared with 26% of 18- to 34-year-olds.


The negative emotion elicited by social-media brands does not extend to other examples of cutting-edge innovation. Indeed, according to the research, brands in the wider technology sector seem un-likely to fall prey to the 'Marmite effect'. Despite the hype surrounding Apple's pro-ducts, Micro-soft came out as the UK's most-loved technology brand. The least-popular brands in this sector all fell into the mobile-phone category.


The automotive sector elicited predominantly positive feelings from consumers, but men were more likely to be positive about car brands than women. The one brand in this sector about which women were considerably more positive than men was Rover. While 35% of female respondents liked or loved the dormant British marque, just 21% of male respondents felt the same way.