The Transference Response


This was published in the September 2009 issue of the Journal of the All India Management Association, published by Business Standard.                                                                                        

By Anand Kurian


The Transference Response derives its name from psychology. 

We have all read or heard about transference; it is a phenomenon in psychoanalysis 

where unconscious feelings for one person are redirected to another. Strong feelings that a patient may have towards a father, for instance, may transfer to a therapist. Here, in this article, I am referring to a phenomenon that occurs in the marketplace; I have paid tribute to the genesis of the term and named it the Transference Response.

Let’s think of an example that may seem familiar. 

A teenager often visits a particular cafe – let’s call it Cafe D&N (short for Cafe Day & Night). He enjoys sitting around, soaking in the ambience, drinking delicious, exotic coffees from all around the world. He likes the young, hip crowd who saunter in; he is fond of lounging there with his friends.


But, one day, while he is there, he has a rather traumatic experience. He is in a relationship with a girl from college; they have a terrible argument on that day, they fight and she storms out of the cafe. The incident and the day are over, the girl never does come back into his life again. And then we find a rather strange thing happening – the young man no longer likes Cafe D&N.


The Transference Response has come into play; his feelings over the incident, his anger and resentment, have transferred onto Cafe D&N itself. 

You will find the Transference Response at work in many areas of our lives. Television news channel editors have often complained that the viewing public seem ever ready "to shoot the messenger"; the Transference Response explains the process that is being played out here. News channel editors can take some comfort from the scene in Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar, where Soumitra Chatterjee slaps the boy who has just given him the news of Sharmila Tagore's death - the Transference Response has always been an integral part of our emotional lives. 

The difference now is that today's channels bring news of a whole series of terrible events - whether it is the Bhopal gas tragedy, the tsunami, terrorist attacks or riots - into our living room. Some of the resulting anger is bound to transfer (quite irrationally, of course) on to the news channel, the resultant media-bashing is, to some extent, inevitable. Since our feelings here are not based on facts or on logic, we rationalise and attribute our anger to a whole list of 'reasons' that we conjure up. (This ability to find logical reasons, post facto, for decisions we have already made, also seems hard-wired into human behaviour; we have the need to see ourselves as rational beings).  


Marketing & the Transference Response

Of course, in all these cases, the Transference Response has kicked off on its own; it has not been triggered and directed by a professional marketer. But it is possible to use this human characteristic to marketing ends. The transference can be activated, it can be controlled and, finally, it can be directed towards the product that one is promoting.


Event Managers employ the Transference Response to such ends (or they should be doing so). A rock concert that’s a wonderful, exciting experience is brought to the young target audience by a cola. The whole heady experience of the event – the bodies all around, the chanting, the electrifying music – all transfer to the cola brand.


Of course, how well this transfer happens depends on the expertise and skill of the event company. The event has to be planned and executed so efficiently that the youthful target audience has an exhilarating evening. Then a clear connection between those feelings and the cola brand has to be drawn so that the transfer can take place.      


Of course, long before that, we will need to decide that the cola is the right product for the event and that it will benefit from such a transference. Obviously, a product that is targeted at the elderly will not do. But, less apparently, even from an array of youth products, not all of them will benefit from such a transference. It is crucial that that the personality of the brand and the transference that is to take place must be a perfect fit.

Interestingly, in such cases, it can often be what I call a Two-Way Transference. A celebrity may be paid a hefty sum to promote a brand; but he will find, in the long run, that the brand persona transfers onto him too. In India, for instance, being signed up for a cola transfers a confirmation of the celebrity’s superstar status. (In earlier times, when an actress was signed up for a certain luxury soap, it transferred the same status, I am not so sure if that holds good today).

Cricketers such as Sachin Tendulkar, or those who manage his career, realise this. He seldom endorses a brand that that is not a winner, in its own right. Actors such as Sunny Deol, unfortunately, do the wrong commercials; they find that the brand transfers onto them and they are locked into the rustic banian man image forever.   

Once we recognise the Transference Response, we can immediately see that some celebrities are guilty of committing what could be called Serial  Transference – doing too many endorsements and too often. (Mr Bachchan and Mr Shah Rukh Khan are certainly guilty of this – Mr Aamir Khan  is not.)

And, sometimes, when two products are endorsed that don’t quite match, there could be a Jump Transference – it could give viewers an unpleasant jolt. Mr Bachchan endorses Reid and Taylor through some very sophisticated advertising; their look, feel and tone are as impressive as  the James Bond commercials that were originally used for the brand. However, the suiting consumer is given an uncomfortable jerk when he sees the Reid and Taylor man endorsing Binani Cement – just a few minutes later.

But, perhaps, there’s an opportunity here, if we were to work at it differently. Celebrity managers could look at Paired or even Clustered Transferences – with two or more well-matched products endorsed together to create a halo effect. The whole would now be far greater than its individual parts. A Reid & Taylor could be endorsed along with a premium watch brand, a Rolex perhaps, along with a Scotch, maybe Johnnie Walker Black. The end result would be a win-win for all three products, far more than what their marketing directors ordered.  

Lev Kuleshov's experiment

I talked about the Transference Response at the Film & Television Institute of India recently; I mentioned an interesting experiment done by the Russian filmmaker, 

Lev Kuleshov. 

He filmed an actor wearing an ‘expressionless’ expression, i.e. it was difficult to tell what the actor’s thoughts or feelings were. He then edited it in three different ways: one had the man between shots of delicious food, in another edit, he was juxtaposed with an old woman lying dead and in the third edit, it was between shots of a rather attractive woman.

The three films were shown to three groups; each group watched only one edit. They thought the actor was expressing hunger, grief and desire respectively. The actor’s shot was, of course, exactly the same in all three edits.

This is now known as the Kuleshov Effect and it demonstrates how the Transference Response works. As I told the film students, our mind ‘edits’ all the information it receives, making links between the bits and pieces of information that comes in, till a pattern it recognises emerges.

If you meet an old school friend whom you have lost touch with, and you see him with a beautiful lady in a luxurious hotel, you form one opinion of him. On the other hand, if you catch sight of him with some goons on a city street, you form quite a different opinion. You observe him with some powerful politicians, and you form a third impression.

And yet, in all three cases, you have no facts available to you about him at all; you have only transferred facts about his surround onto him.

Can you change your opinion later about him? Of course, you can. But remember that the pace and swirl of life today has acquired a new and almost dizzying speed. It takes an overwhelming set of new impressions to change a consumer’s mindset because his mind has moved on, to the next set of decisions waiting to be made. To get it to stop, revert to an old decision and change its thinking is not an easy task.

But, with a powerful stimulus, it can be done.


This is what happened in the case of Cadbury’s, one of India’s best-loved brands. Cadbury’s had a clear and well-defined place in the consumers’ mind space. It would take a very powerful transference to change that – but the yucky images of worms, once it was transferred to the chocolate, succeeded in doing just that. (This is what I refer to as an Unplanned & Unwanted Transference, as opposed to a Planned or Desirable Transference).  

So Cadbury’s had its work cut out for it; what could it do to offset the transfer?  It repackaged the product (the worm visual was attached to the old product, this one was new) and then they pulled Amitabh Bachchan, fresh from his KBC stint, into the campaign.

So you will see that, in this case, a series of transferences was taking place, both negative and positive. But the final positive transference – the reassuring warmth of the Bachchan persona onto the new product – won out in the end. Cadbury’s was back in the consumer mind space, perhaps in an even better place than before.

Society & Politics

The Transference Response comes into play in our personal lives as well. You use it, albeit unconsciously, to your own ends. When you invite a fiancée to meet you at a five-star coffee shop, you are hoping the patina of luxury and success will transfer onto you.

In the social sphere, the Transference Response explains why the caste system survives doggedly on in India. How easy it is to make judgements about a person when the qualities of the caste are transferred to the person (whether this is wise or otherwise, of course, is a different matter).

This also makes it clear why politics is increasingly dominated by a few families (it is estimated that within two decades, India will be run by just five hundred clans). We trust and look up to Senior, so Junior & he work together for a while. Senior then steps into the background but remains around until Junior wins his election. Senior later retreats into the shadows of retirement and we fully embrace Junior. The entire cycle of the Transference Response is complete. 

 The Five Player Cycle

The success of the Transference Response depends on how skilfully it is Triggered, Directed and, finally, Sustained (TDS, for short). There are normally five players in the cycle – the company (that owns the product and engineers the transfer), the transfer stimulus (the celebrity individual, event etc), the consumer, the residual image or quality to be transferred and the brand itself – it is the interplay between these elements that makes for success.

It is interesting to note that many companies are known by the brands they create. So the final transference of the cycle occurs when a consumer says, “Unilever must be a company I can rely on – since they make Surf.” So, great brands will pay their debt back to their company that created them.  

The principal protagonist of the process is not, as we would suppose, the stimulus; it is, finally, the consumer – it is his response that we seek. It is he who must respond and commit to the transference – and that process takes place entirely inside the four walls of his mind.

The Transference Response has been used, so far, in a fragmented, almost accidental way, without careful or conscious thought. But if we fully recognise this human characteristic and learn how best we can harness it, then we can deploy it in a focused manner we can put it to greater and more powerful use, far more than we have ever done before.


(Anand Kurian is a writer and marketing communications professional. Along with two former deans of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, he has developed a new subject 'The Culture of Business' for management students. This article is adapted from lectures at the IIMs, the Film & Television Institute of India and the National Institute of Design.)