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Brand identity: It's all in your head Add to ...

Derek Smythe sat in an uptown Toronto bar the other evening, ordered a Dos Equis beer, chugged it down, then declared himself disappointed. The quaff quenched his thirst just fine. But, contrary to the beer's popular series of ads featuring a sophisticated adventurer and ladies man depicted as "the world's most interesting man," Mr. Smythe said he didn't feel altered by the experience. "I felt just as uninteresting as I was before," he explained.

If new research published this week is correct, though, the fault may not lie with the beer but rather with Mr. Smythe (whose real identity, in the interest of protecting the innocent and uninteresting, we have masked).

In "Got to Get You into My Life: Do Brand Personalities Rub Off on Consumers?", a pair of University of Minnesota researchers present compelling evidence that some people are predisposed to take on characteristics embodied by brands, while others are harder nuts to crack. Which goes some distance in explaining why you may have genuinely felt more like a rebel after buying a Harley-Davidson motorcycle - or not.

"There's a tradition in consumer research that identifies the fact that people use brands as signals of who they are," notes Deborah Roedder John, the chair of the marketing department at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management and a co-author of the paper. (Her co-author Ji Kyung Park is a doctoral candidate.) "In looking at that body of literature one thing that fascinated us was no one had actually done strong experimental work to figure out whether or not, after people use these brands, are they really successful in feeling better about themselves."

For the first of four studies described in the Journal of Consumer Research paper, women were given a Victoria's Secret shopping bag to use while visiting a suburban Minneapolis shopping mall. After an hour, the women perceived themselves to be more glamorous, more feminine, and more good-looking (the three most salient characteristics that make up the brand's "personality") than those who had used a plain pink shopping bag.

In the second study, MBA students at the University of Minnesota used pens branded with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology logo. At the end of a six-week period, they felt they were more intelligent, harder-working, and possessed more leadership qualities than those who had used a common ballpoint.

The brands' personalities, in other words, rubbed off on the subjects.

"I think we've always known, even without much research, that people are drawn to particular brand images, and they can use the brand image to signal things about themselves," noted Ann McGill, a JCR editor who did not directly work on the paper. "But that's always had a 'look-at-me' feel to it. This one is more internalized and I think that's what makes it interesting. They actually seem to believe they become like the brand image.

"The old idea was that the macho guy looks over the marketplace and says, Oh, I want a Dodge Ram," she continued. "But now this is sort of saying, You drive a Dodge Ram and you might start becoming kind of macho." Over the phone, she laughed at what she'd just said. "That's interesting. I mean, you always try to be careful about the company you keep, but I thought that meant people."

But there's a twist: this brand magic only works on those people who psychologists consider to be "entity theorists."

To go further, we first need to take a small step sideways and wrap our minds around some other research. According to the University of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, people think of themselves in one of two contrasting ways. So-called entity theorists believe personal qualities are fixed and cannot be changed through direct effort to improve, learn, or grow. As a result, they look for opportunities to signal their positive qualities to both themselves and others. This might mean taking a college course that has a reputation for being easy, in order to be assured a high grade. (Or carrying a Victoria's Secret shopping bag around a mall.)

"They sort of believe they can't do it on their own," elaborates Prof. John. "They have to have something to help them signal that they're a better person. And that something could be many things. But brands, as we know from consumer research, happen to be one of those things."

So-called incremental theorists, on the other hand, believe they can enhance themselves only through learning and hard work. They're more likely to seek out challenges that carry the risk of failure - like taking a tough college course that rewards study and application. Signalling their positive qualities to others or themselves by, say, carrying a Victoria's Secret shopping bag, or driving a Porsche, has little or no effect on their sense of self.

Some of this, of course, is not new.

"I think there's already a belief among marketers and advertisers that brands have this type of power, and that consumers respond positively to that," says Prof. John. "I think maybe what they don't understand quite yet is that there may be only a certain percentage of the population that that's really an accurate description of. But there are other people - although they like these brands and they pick them and they use them - it doesn't quite have that power over them."

But what extraordinary power it is, at least for entity theorists: Prof. John's research suggests that brands might actually play a therapeutic role in people's lives. In the fourth study described in the CJR paper (which will be published in print form some time early in 2011), undergraduate students were given a math quiz. Regardless of their actual answers, each was told they had performed poorly. But entity theorists who were given an MIT-branded pen to use for 10 minutes fully recovered from the psychological slight, while others did not.

"It totally overcame the negative feedback," says Prof. John.

"That was really interesting, because sometimes people have a perception of marketing and brands as being 'the evil marketers,' figuring out ways to sort of subconsciously make people do things that are maybe bad for them, or make people buy things they shouldn't be buying," she adds. "But what we found interesting from that study was, brands really allowed people to feel more positive about themselves. It was sort of an empowering thing that they got from using that brand."

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