January 30, 2013 | Research Brief

Egocentric Categorization and Product Judgment: Seeing Your Traits in What You Own (and Their Opposite in What You Don't)

Marketing techniques that encourage consumers to feel “ownership” of products before making a purchase can backfire.

Topics: Marketing

The Idea

Marketing techniques that encourage consumers to feel “ownership” of products before making a purchase can backfire.

The Research

Many companies encourage feelings of ownership of their products as a strategy to increase sales. For example, Nike allows consumers to customize sneakers online before making a purchase. Apple's marketing makes consumers feel that they are holding its products in their hands. These strategies are based on the theory that consumers who feel ownership of a product will be more likely to judge it positively.

However, Professor Gita Johar and doctoral candidate Liad Weiss show that encouraging a feeling of ownership can have unintended effects. Consumers tend to “self-project” their traits onto products they own, the researchers found. Consider a consumer who perceives herself as lacking creativity. She may project her own lack of creativity onto an Apple computer that she owns — or is encouraged to feel ownership of — and associate Apple computers with low creativity. Conversely, consumers tend to project their “anti-self” onto products that they do not own. When a consumer who perceives herself as uncreative realizes that she does not own an Apple computer — when shopping, for example — she may then identify all that she lacks in creativity in the computer, and associate Apple computers with high creativity.

Practical Applications

Marketers

This research shows that the way people judge products can be affected by how they perceive themselves. Therefore, if targeted consumers have negative self-perceptions on traits relevant to the product, conventional marketing plans that are aimed at evoking a feeling of ownership may backfire. Marketing practices that encourage feelings of ownership include mass customization, tryouts, and test-drives, as well as displays and advertising that encourage consumers to touch a product or imagine its use.

By considering whether customers have positive self-perceptions on relevant personality traits, marketers can lead consumers to judge their products more positively and reduce the likelihood that “ownership” strategies will have negative effects. Marketers can guess at these traits based on observable characteristics; for example, graphic designers are likely to perceive themselves as creative, athletes as competitive, and city dwellers as sophisticated. In addition, individual data about consumers is becoming more available to marketers, particularly in e-commerce contexts. Marketers can use data on prior purchases or responses to surveys to infer traits of individual consumers and customize their strategies accordingly.

Read the Research

Liad Weiss, Gita Johar

"Egocentric Categorization and Product Judgment: Seeing Your Traits in What You Own (and Their Opposite in What You Don't)"

View abstract/citation  Download PDF  

Have You Read Columbia Business?

Columbia Business School’s alumni magazine connects alumni with each other and the School; celebrates alumni milestones and accomplishments; and chronicles the impact of Columbia Business School alumni, faculty members, and students on the global business landscape.

Read Columbia Business>