Lead by Example? Custom-Made Examples Created by Close Others Lead Consumers to Make Dissimilar Choices

Jennifer K. D’Angelo and Kristin Diehl, University of Southern California, and Lisa A. Cavanaugh, University of British Columbia, 2019, 19-117-05

Consumers customize an ever-growing number of products. For example, consumers can design their own sneakers (, create their own protein bar (, or formulate their own fragrance ( In fact, industry experts view mass customization as the future of retailing.

Prior to customizing products for themselves, consumers often encounter products customized by other people they know. The question is, how do such custom-made examples from identified social others influence consumers’ own customization choices?

Here, Jennifer D’Angelo, Kristin Diehl, and Lisa Cavanaugh suggest and provide evidence that these custom-made examples influence consumers’ psychological motives and customization choices in important ways. In eight studies that span different product contexts, involve real choices, and isolate the underlying theoretical mechanism (i.e., motivations to express uniqueness), they provide novel evidence for the role of custom-made examples and identified social others in customization, as follows:

When encountering a custom-made example of an identity-related product created by an identified social other, consumers infer this social other was motivated to express uniqueness. After making this inference, consumers behave in kind by also expressing uniqueness, particularly when the example was created by a close versus distant other.

Consumers express uniqueness through their own customization choices, choosing fewer options shown in the example or choosing fewer best-selling options. Consumers sometimes even pay a monetary cost or sacrifice preferred choices in order to make their own product unique.

Further, this effect dissipates when motivations other than expressing uniqueness are inferred about a social other (e.g., for functionally-related products).

The findings from this research provide important marketing implications by illuminating the significant influence of examples in shaping consumers’ customization choices. The authors investigate several characteristics of examples, including the type of product shown in the example (custom-made vs. ready-made), the focus of the customization (e.g., identity vs. functionally-related), and the social distance to those who created the example (close vs. distant). Marketers often times have control over such characteristics, and these findings can inform their decisions on which components to highlight or use.

Overall, their studies demonstrate that examples that feature custom-made, identity-related products created by a close other can motivate individuals to express uniqueness. In some cases, heightening motivations to express uniqueness may be beneficial to marketers. For instance, marketers may want to promote the consumption of rare options, such as novel features, flavors of the month, or limited edition designs. In other cases, making a product unique can be detrimental, as too many alterations to a product may dampen its signal of status. In such cases, marketers may want to feature examples that do not heighten motivations to express uniqueness.

Jennifer K. D’Angelo is a doctoral candidate in Marketing, and Kristin Diehl is Professor of Marketing, both at the Marshall School of Business, The University of Southern California. Lisa A. Cavanaugh is Associate Professor of Marketing and Behavioral Science, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia.

The authors thank Debbie MacInnis, Joseph Nunes, Cheryl Wakslak, and Linda Hagen for their helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. The authors also gratefully acknowledge the funding and feedback received from the Marketing Science Institute.

Related link

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

Boundaries of Self-Expression: Identity Saturation and Brand Preferences in Consumer Choice
Alexander Chernev and David Gal (2009) [Report]


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