Boundaries of Self-Expression: Identity Saturation and Brand Preferences in Consumer Choice

Alexander Chernev and David Gal, 2009, 09-104

In this exploration of the interaction of brands and consumer self-expression, Alexander Chernev and David Gal expand on the theory that brands not only have intrinsic value, but also have value as a means of helping consumers express their personalities. They argue that because an individual’s need for self-expression is finite, an abundance of alternative means of self-expression can lead to a decrease in consumers’ brand preferences. This proposition is based on the notion that the value individuals derive from fulfilling their need for self-expression does not increase in a linear fashion; rather, the marginal benefits from additional means of self-expression tend to decrease due to identity saturation.

The authors tested their hypotheses in a series of four empirical studies. The first experiment examines whether the act of listing favorite brands will weaken people’s preferences for subsequently evaluated brands. In the second experiment, the authors expand the test to see whether listing nonbrand methods of self-expression (e.g., favorite songs, sports teams) has a similar effect on subsequently evaluated brands. The third experiment tests whether merely evaluating one set of self-expressive brands can lead to a decrease in expressed preferences for subsequently evaluated brands. The fourth experiment investigates whether the impact of available alternative means of self-expression on preferences is a function of an individual’s need for self-expression, such that it is more pronounced in the presence of a threat to self-identity. The results of all four experiments support the authors’ hypotheses.

The findings from this research have important implications for understanding the psychological underpinnings of self-expression, for measuring individuals’ preferences, for brand management, and for measuring brand equity. Based on the authors’ findings, brand managers should consider a much broader array of brands and nonbrand means of self-expression as competition for consumers’ self-expression choices. Incorporating the impact of this broader set of competitors should result in more precise brand equity estimation and help companies build stronger brands.

Alexander Chernev is Associate Professor of Marketing and David Gal is Assistant Professor of Marketing, both at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

Related links

Identity Signaling with Social Capital: A Model of Symbolic Consumption
Jonah Berger, Benjamin Ho, and Yogesh Joshi (2011) [Report]


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