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Faculty Insights

Buyer Beware: Do Brands and Products Unconsciously Shape Our Identity?

By Wisconsin School of Business

December 3, 2015

Before making purchasing decisions, people often take a moment to evaluate themselves, asking questions like: “Is this right for me? Am I tall enough to approach the good looking person sitting at the bar? Am I outdoorsy enough to spend my coming vacation in a tent? Am I sophisticated enough to dine at a bistro?”

Liad Weiss
Liad Weiss, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business

Both reason and research suggest that people often make such judgments by comparing themselves to others. I wondered, however, whether another key aspect of our environment—the material goods that surround us—might also affect how we judge ourselves.
For example, can seeing an ad for a sophisticated Mont Blank pen, which I don’t own, make me feel less sophisticated and thus less likely to frequent a bistro? Would a longtime owner of a Volkswagen–suddenly an icon of dishonesty and deception following its emission scandal–inadvertently take on the new “deceptive” persona of the brand, running more traffic lights or inflating an insurance claim?

I worked with Gita Venkataramani Johar of Columbia Business School to determine if consumers would evaluate their own traits and abilities differently when interacting with different objects, and whether owning the object matters.

We initially tested our hypothesis with a frequently used object: a coffee mug. Participants tried one of two 16oz black mugs; one was taller and thinner, and the other shorter and thicker.
Half received the mug they tried as a gift, which we call “imposed” ownership; and the other half were told they would receive a different mug as a gift, creating “imposed” lack of ownership. Participants then completed questionnaires that evaluated how tall they felt and their overall physical self-esteem.
As we expected, gifting the mug to participants lead them to assess themselves as having similar traits: receiving as a gift the shorter (rather than the taller) mug lead participants to feel shorter.
The opposite pattern was observed for participants who did not own the mug: Trying the shorter mug they did not receive as a gift lead participants to feel taller. Feeling shorter or taller, in turn, predicted lower or higher physical self-esteem, suggesting that participants truly felt less or more positive about their physical appearance depending on which mug they tried and on whether they owned it.

Two mugs
For the purposes of the experiment, Weiss and his co-authors presented subjects with one of these two mugs.

In this case, the key is that consumers must be aware that they do not own an object for there to be any change in self-esteem—people are not influenced by every unowned object in their purview, only by objects that they are conscious of not owning. This applies to many consumption situations, such as gift-giving and shopping, when ownership is on people’s mind, and thus they are more likely to be mindful about not owning objects they interact with.
We found consistent results with a second, similar experiment using headphones. In this experiment, rather than manipulating a physical trait of the headphones, we manipulated the brand personality. All participants tried the same set of headphones, with half owning the headphones and the other half not owning them.
Then, half the participants learned that the headphones were designed to reproduce sound exactly as it was heard in the recording studio, positioning the device as honest and sincere. The other half was told that the headphones were designed to artificially enhance the quality of the sound, positioning them as somewhat dishonest and insincere. Finally, in an ostensibly unrelated study, participants received an opportunity and motivation to behave insincerely: They were allowed to self-report how well they did in a trivia game that incentivized good performance.
As we expected, participants who received the headphones as a gift behaved in a manner consistent with traits of the headphones: receiving the enhanced or “insincere” headphones led participants to behave more insincerely and cheat more. The opposite pattern was observed for participants who did not own the headphones: Trying the insincere (vs. sincere) headphones they did not receive as a gift led participants to behave less insincerely and cheat less.
This phenomenon has interesting implications for the holiday gift-giving season. First, it suggests that picky individuals are actually doing themselves a service by carefully screening what gifts they accept, blocking traits of undesired products from creeping into their self-image and behavior. Second, it suggests a potential for a new category of gifts–transformative gifts–that gently guide our loved ones, employees, or customers to be more honest, creative, or generous.
Our third experiment extended the findings to a more subtle case of ownership, an ephemeral feeling of ownership while wearing a product. Using the same product category, headphones, we focused on another physical property of the device: its weight.
All participants had an opportunity to wear the headphones. Half of the participants responded to our questions while wearing the device, whereas the other half responded to the same questions after removing the device.

As we expected, participants felt greater ownership for the headphones while wearing the device. Further, consistent with the previous studies, feeling ownership for the headphones lead participants to feel lighter when wearing lighter headphones, and feel heavier when wearing heavier headphones.

What does this all mean? Anything that you own—whether it’s a gift, a hand-me-down, or something that you bought—affects the way that you perceive yourself. When people acquire an object, not only do these people gain control over it, but, ironically, they also surrender control to it, allowing its traits to influence how they see themselves and behave.
In addition, the massive exposure of people to product advertising highlights the importance of how products that we don’t own affect our perceptions of ourselves. Future research would benefit from further studying the interplay between how people judge products and judge themselves; examining whether the observed effects are long lasting or short-lived; and exploring how such effects also hold outside the lab.
For more on this topic, see our paper “Products as Self-Evaluation Standards” forthcoming in Journal of Consumer Research.
Liad Weiss is assistant professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business.