Various studies have concluded that consumers are demonstrating the need to belong to a group when they buy certain branded goods. However, it appears that some consumers may use brands for the opposite reason, to differentiate themselves and stand out from the crowd.

Self-Esteem a Central Factor in Consumers’ Brand Allegiance

Many consumers see brands as a useful ways to signal their individuality and even demonstrate a degree of superiority. These are among the findings of a recent study entitled ‘Using Differentiated Brands to Deflect Exclusion and Protect Inclusion: The Moderating Role of Self-Esteem on Attachment to Differentiated Brands’, carried out by a group of researchers working under the aegis of the University of Chicago. The team has shown how brand identities can help consumers to connect with each other, to strengthen their sense of belonging to a social group, and thus reduce feelings of social exclusion. But it all depends on the type of brands consumers use. The researchers have identified two types, which they call ‘horizontal’ brands and ‘vertical’ brands.

‘Horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ brands

According to the study, ‘horizontal’ brand users represent a subgroup within the reference group. In other words, these brands allow an individual to distinguish him/herself from the average group member while creating or maintaining allegiance with the overall group. For instance, according to the researchers, consumers who purchase brands such as American lifestyle brand Hollister from Abercrombie & Fitch are thereby able to distinguish themselves in terms of their personality or tastes. What they describe as ‘vertical’ differentiation occurs when people use brands to demonstrate a degree of superiority over others in the reference group. The researchers found that brands conferring this type of differentiation are often luxury brands. However these seemingly rather black-and-white differentiations can serve as a useful basis for developing more sophisticated assessments of consumer behaviour.

Self-esteem at the root of brand attachment

Building on prior differentiation work, the researchers argue that people with low self-esteem tend to show a deep attachment to ‘horizontal’ brands when they feel socially excluded. They explain that ‘horizontal’ brands allow people to protect themselves against the sense of exclusion by perceiving the group as made up of many heterogeneous subgroups. By contrast, when these same people with low self-esteem feel included in the group, they often go for ‘vertical’ brands, which enable them to raise their profile, while continuing to belong. The study therefore suggests that when people look to adopt brands which differentiate them, what they might actually be doing is trying to fit in rather than stand out.

By Pierre-Marie Mateo