There is a strong relation between the people’s self-image and – for example – the number of Apple products they own.
That’s because the ‘I’ in iPhone or iPad reminds you of yourself. When you have a positive self-image, that’s what you want, discovered marketing researcher Jacob Wiebenga.
The same goes for other self-referencing products. Think of MySpace or Coca-Cola bottles with your name on it.
He checked his findings by researching the signatures of the participants of his study. A slightly bigger signature, reflects a person with more self esteem.
‘It might explain part of the success of these global brands’, says Wiebenga.
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‘Is he talking about me? Did they just say my name? What did they say?’
Almost everyone has experienced this at least once while being in a noisy pub, restaurant or the University canteen. It’s crowded, but suddenly, you hear your name said aloud and want to know if someone is talking about you. More importantly, you’re curious what is being said about you.
Everyone is constantly concerned with his or her self-image, be it by conveying a positive image or fixing a negative self-image, says Jacob Wiebenga, who was recently awarded his PhD on research in Marketing Communication and Consumer Psychology.
Express your self-image
Apparently, the human unconsciousness has found a way to express such a positive self-image with so-called self-referencing products.
Wiebenga’s research Implicit self-regulation in consumer goal pursuit was done within the Marketing program of the Economics and Business Faculty of the RUG and was funded by Brand Loyalty, a company whose work focuses on consumer behavior.
One chapter of his research covers the relationship between a positive self-image and products that people unconsciously associate with themselves, such as the iPhone or the iPad. His results show that people with a higher self-esteem prefer self-referencing brands. But what does this exactly, mean?
In the beginning of Wiebenga’s research, he and his team wanted to find out if everyone is equally drawn to self-referencing brands or if it is connected to people’s self-image.
In the first study conducted with people from the US, Wiebenga asked them how they feel about their self-esteem and how many Apple products they own. ‘There was a very strong relation between the people’s self-image and the number of products they had.’
Wiebenga understood that critics of this research could claim that the participants may have, for instance, a higher income and thus more self-esteem (or the other way around), and that could be what drew them to Apple products.
To combat that Wiebenga and his team did another study. They made up names for products such as water bottles. Study participants were presented with brand names such as My Bottle, I Bottle, X Bottle, or A Bottle. ‘This study had the exact same effect.’ People with a higher self-esteem were more excited about the I Bottle and My Bottle, Wiebenga says, ‘whereas self-esteem had no effect on the control brands.’
‘In the next step, we tried to measure people’s self-esteem more unconsciously, because the explicit self-esteem measure of the second study could have affected the results’, Wiebenga explains. They knew from research that when people have higher self-esteem, their signature is also a bit bigger. Since the participants that enter an experiment always have to sign a consent form, he was able to use that signature for his research to estimate how confident people were.
Then, they presented the brand names again; the bigger the signature was, the more they were drawn to the self-referencing brand names.
The other way around?
Now, Wiebenga wanted to know whether this also works the other way around: if people with a negative self-image shy away from self-referencing brands because it reminds them of their negative self-view.
The previous experiments had shown that most people have a positive self-image, so they had to manipulate participant’s self-view. To achieve that, participants had to take a test in the laboratory and, despite their actual performance, certain participants heard that they had performed poorly. This temporarily lowered their self-esteem.
Consequently, these participants started to dislike the self-referencing brands. ‘But this only worked for products that are really reflecting the self, like sunglasses, a phone, or a watch’, says Wiebenga. ‘Products like a bin or toilet paper don’t really say something about the person, and hence are not really self-threatening.’
Since people feel attracted to brands that reflect a positive self-view ‘it might explain part of the success of these global brands’, says Wiebenga. Still, he stresses that there are a lot of factors that contribute to why someone buys an iPhone, and self-esteem is only part of it.
Nevertheless, marketing has already incorporated our obsession with our self-image into their strategies. We should ask ourselves: why are we really using MyFitnessPal, My o2, or the platform MyUniversity. Is it just because our unconsciousness is fooling us?
Wiebenga explains that we unconsciously prefer things that relate to ourselves: If two people have the exact same coffee mug, you will most likely prefer your own, because it refers to yourself. This effect can also be created through letters in people’s own name.
‘You see this, for instance, with Coca-Cola. They took this so-called name letter effect very literally,’ Wiebenga says. If you notice your own name on a Coke bottle, you are unconsciously drawn to it. Similarly, people probably wouldn’t buy a Coke bottle with the name of someone they dislike.
These name labels are really specific, but another way to refer to ‘yourself’ is by using ‘I’ and ‘My,’ in brand names, Wiebenga says. This is what makes an iPhone a self-referencing product.