Over the past decade, Professor Rohini Ahluwalia's work has focused on branding issues, including brand loyalty and brand extensions. She's studied how to manage brand equity and image in global markets, including the issues that managers need to keep in mind. But given her focus on consumer behavior, she also examines how consumers use brands in their lives, in particular, to manage their needs. One of her recently published papers in the Journal of Consumer Research discusses how consumers use brands to meet their need to belong.
"People have a very strong innate desire to belong. We want social connection, we want to feel part of a group," Ahluwalia said. "That's a very important need for most of us and brands can sometimes help in fulfilling this need in consumers."
Past research has looked at what people do when they feel this need. Typically it found that people gravitate toward brands that symbolize the group they want to belong to, which is why people are attracted to the most popular brands associated with that group. For example, Nike symbolizes athletes, and therefore if people want to feel accepted by athletes, they start using Nike. But Ahluwalia and her co-authors looked at it differently. While it may seem counter-intuitive, they suggest that many times when people want to belong to a social group, they try to differentiate themselves, instead of going with the most popular brand for the group. Whether they differentiate or blend in depends mostly on the person's self-esteem. When people have high self-esteem and feel socially excluded (and hence a heightened need to belong), they are likely to reaffirm their belongingness by gravitating towards the symbolic mainstream brand. But when people have lower levels of self-esteem, they not only have a high need to belong, but are constantly thinking about how they fit in and how people are treating them, and hence, use brands very differently to meet these needs.
The research found that when people have lower self-esteem, there is a high level of fear of rejection, which is why they don't necessarily want to go to the most popular brand, which says, "I fit in." Instead, they'll look at the different types of athletes. They'll try to find a brand that is more strongly associated with a subgroup. That is called horizontal differentiation. Horizontal differentiation has nothing to do with prestige or being better. It's just about being different in terms of the image it signals. Nike might be more of the mainstream brand, while Converse might be a little more differentiated. So when people feel social exclusion, they tend to use more of those types of brands.
Interestingly, Ahluwalia and colleagues find that even when people with a lower self-esteem feel socially included in a group, they still want to differentiate. They want to make sure their position in the group is secure. And a way to do that is by being superior to the group. They try to differentiate when they're socially included by choosing brands that are vertically differentiated, or that signal status. For example, instead of wearing a Nike or Converse shirt, someone might wear a Polo shirt. They use these status-oriented, luxury brands to signal superiority.
"There are two ways in which consumers can use brands to differentiate themselves from a social group -- horizontally vs. vertically," Ahluwalia said. "Part of our contribution is proposing this distinction and showing that even when consumers differentiate, it could be with a view to strengthen their belongingness to the group."
From a consumer perspective, that gives the researchers a better understanding of how consumers use brands. But from a marketer perspective, it also shows how the people who buy mainstream brands may be different from those who are more likely to buy luxury or horizontally differentiated brands. This helps companies figure out what kind of appeals they want to use.
In another branding study, Ahluwalia and her co-authors examined people's attachment styles, or the ways in which people relate to others. Essentially there are two dimensions of attachment styles. The anxious attachment style deals with people's views of themselves, the extent to which they feel worthy of relationships. The avoidance dimension relates to what a person thinks about the worth of others, and if they're worth having relationships with.
Ahluwalia researched how people use brand personalities in their lives based on their attachment style. This research examines the role of brands in a relational context versus the group belongingness context of the previous study. When people are anxious about personal relationships, they tend to use brands in an instrumental way, using the brand's personality to signal desirable information about themselves to potential relational partners. However, people who experience less anxiety about relationships don't seem to give as much attention to a brand's personality when making product choices. In other words, brand personality seems to matter a lot more, and acts as a public signaling mechanism for people with an anxious attachment style. When these people were making choices of brands in private consumption situations, they don't necessarily show this sensitivity to brand personality.
Researchers looked specifically at two kinds of brand personalities -- a very sincere type of brand personality versus a very exciting type. The more sincere type was found attractive by people who are anxious about others, but have a pretty strong self-view. And the exciting brand personalities appealed to people anxious about others as well as themselves.
Making new discoveries is the most rewarding aspect of research for Ahluwalia, and these studies were no different."When you run into a problem that is interesting, but you don't have a solution, you are faced with a puzzle that you really want to solve," she said. "You keep thinking about it, come up with theories for understanding it, make predictions, and conduct experiments to test it till you finally figure it out! What a wonderful feeling when that happens! It is partly what keeps research going."
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