Consumers who buy brands to stand out may actually be trying to fit in, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.
"Our research suggests that seeking differentiation via brands may actually be another tactic to achieve belongingness," write authors Sara Loughran Dommer (Georgia Institute of Technology), Vanitha Swaminathan (University of Pittsburgh), and Rohini Ahluwalia (University of Minnesota).
The authors explored how and why consumers use brands to stand out within a group. For example, certain brands can help consumers feel like they belong, like a college tennis player who wears Nike to display allegiance to her team. But consumers also use brands to distinguish themselves. The same player might also wear Lacoste to feel superior to her team or Converse to show her distinctive personality.
In a series of studies, the authors found that consumers with low self-esteem work extra hard to distinguish themselves within a group when they feel excluded. They do this by seeking brands that create distinction from typical members of the group based on personality, taste, traits, etc. However, when consumers with low self-esteem feel included, they still seek to distinguish themselves by seeking brands that confer status or demonstrate superiority to others in the group.
Companies often celebrate individuality in their advertising slogans—for example, "Think Different" (Apple), "Off the Wall" (Vans), and "Unlike Any Other" (Mercedes-Benz). According to the authors, companies can utilize strategies to help consumers feel like they fit in. "Brand names that address consumers' belongingness needs by creating brand communities and engaging in social media (e.g., a Facebook page) may satiate consumers' need for belongingness while also counterintuitively enhancing certain consumers' (i.e., low self-esteem consumers) desire to differentiate," the authors write.
"Companies should understand how their efforts may affect consumer belongingness or differentiation needs and how branding strategies based on differentiation can appeal to various types of consumers," the authors conclude.