Skip to main content

Breaking Up With Your Partner, and Your Brands


When a romance goes sour, it can trigger consumer-switching behaviours

The icon of broken heart on the rose background

Indulging in pints of ice cream. Wistfully leafing through old photos of you and your partner in happier times. Listening to “Nothing Compares 2 U” on repeat. These are just some of the ways we cope with a romantic breakup. 

But that’s not all. Ekin Ok, an assistant professor of marketing at Smith School of Business, uncovered an unexpected behaviour that people adopt when love turns sour: they are more willing to switch service providers—from favourite restaurants to cellphone companies—and even brands due to an identity crisis. 

“Unfortunately, the termination of a romantic relationship is a familiar experience for most people,” says Ok. “It’s a significant and prevalent life experience, and in addition to being emotionally distressing, it may also result in an identity transformation process. When there is that uncertainty about who we are as a person, this is also reflected in our consumption decisions.” 

Previous studies have shown how stressful life changes (such as career change or retirement) shape consumption behaviours. But little research has been done on the impacts of romantic breakups, which can also be life-changing experiences that can trigger a loss of identity. 

Ok, working with colleagues Aylin Cakanlar (Stockholm School of Economics) and Hristina Nikolova (Boston College), conducted a series of studies to fill in the blanks. They set out to determine whether experiencing a breakup leads to increased brand and service-switching behaviours, how a loss of identity plays a role in these behaviours and how marketers can use certain messages in their ad campaigns to encourage people to stick with their original service providers. 

An appetite to switch providers and brands 

In their first study, the researchers recruited participants who were in a romantic relationship. Half of the participants were asked to perform a writing task reflecting on an imagined breakup with their partner, while the other half reflected on their upcoming weekend. All participants then rated their willingness to switch providers (which included hair salons, restaurants and Internet and cellphone companies).

In the second study, they recruited an equal number of participants who had recently been through a separation and those who had not. Participants in the first group were asked to write about their breakup experience, while those in the second group wrote their feelings about a recent book that they read. They were then asked to rate their willingness to switch providers.

The third study involved comparing participants who had a recent breakup with another group of participants who had another negative experience that recently happened to them. 

Taken together, these studies confirmed the researchers’ suspicions: those in the breakup group reported the highest switching intentions. And in a subsequent study, the researchers found similar post-breakup switching behaviours for brands as well as service providers. 

Self-identity drives switching 

To find out what drives such switching behaviours, the researchers tested whether people experience “self-discontinuity” after a breakup—a mismatch in their self-concept while in a romantic relationship versus their self-concept after a breakup. 

“Our self-concepts, or how we define who we are, change over time due to different life experiences,” says Ok. “Generally, people like to have a stable view of who they are. Instability creates this uncertainty which could be psychologically distressing.” 

Study participants were asked a series of questions related to their identity in their past relationship versus their present identity, as well as their desire to redefine themselves. They were also asked to rate their willingness to switch service providers. 

This study found that participants who had recently been through a breakup experienced a stronger desire to redefine themselves and had greater switching intentions. 

Ok says this finding makes sense because “our self-concepts are reflected in our consumption behaviours.” 

She adds: “When you experience a breakup, you experience this self-discontinuity, and then you have this motivation to get rid of that ambiguity. You want to redefine your sense of self.” 

When identities integrate 

The urge to redefine oneself after the end of a romance is particularly acute for those people who were most enriched by a relationship while it was still strong, either because of their partner’s contributions or their own role in the relationship. 

In one of their studies, the researchers asked participants who were either married or in a committed relationship for at least one year to visualize the end of their relationships and rate how much their partner expanded their sense of who they were as a person. Those who felt their self-concept significantly grew during their romantic relationship were more likely to switch service providers after the breakup. 

“There is this identity integration that happens over time,” says Ok. “When in a long-term relationship, we tend to develop what’s called a ‘couple’s identity.’ We become more like our partner and our partner becomes more like us, and we develop this mutual sense of who we are. The more we perceive our relationship as enriching our self-concept, the greater identity loss we feel upon breaking up.” 

The message for marketers 

Ok says marketers can minimize the risk of customers switching due to a romantic breakup or other life transitions through strategic messaging. “If they can emphasize this message of identity stability and self-continuity in their marketing communications,” she says, “they can have a better chance at making their customers stay.”

The researchers tested this idea with participants who were asked to imagine moving into a new apartment after the end of a relationship and deciding between two service providers—their current one or a new one. They read two advertisements from their current provider, with one reading, “There are many transitions in life but what stays the same is who you are.” 

The researchers found that people were more willing to stick with the same provider when the advertisement had a self-continuity message, reminding them they will always be the same person. 

This is a significant finding for marketers who want to retain their existing customers and even for those who want to gain new customers, such as targeting people who have changed their relationship status on social media, says Ok. 

The researcher says these types of consumer behaviour studies are important for businesses because retaining customers costs less than acquiring new ones. 

“The conventional wisdom held by most managers is that if you have satisfied customers, they won’t switch,” says Ok. “But there’s so much more to the story than that. In this case, our research shows that it can also be a consequence of consumers’ identity transition and self-transformation journeys.”