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I choose, therefore I am.

2011.08.31

I ate a lot of peanut butter as a kid.  Specifically Jif peanut butter.  I didn’t even try another brand until after college, and maybe even then begrudgingly.  A friend told me a similar story about his daughter, also a Jif loyalist: When he suggested to her that she might like another brand better she became very angry and insisted that she didn’t want to even try another brand, even if it WAS better. Perhaps you know someone with such a brand-loyal attitude, even as adults.

How I defined myself as a child (photo courtesy of Jill Clardy)

Was I unreasonably stubborn?  Did she overreact?  Probably, if this was only about peanut butter.  But could it be about something bigger?  What if my sense of identity was tied to my peanut butter brand?  Asking me to change my peanut butter is then asking me to change not just something I eat, but a part of me.  Sound crazy?  A study published in upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology asserts exactly that.

The authors argue that the brands we like become part of how we view ourselves.  If that is true, we would expect that if someone were to criticize our favorite brands we might react in a way similar to if someone had criticized us directly. In the authors’ experiments, when people who felt strongly about a brand were confronted with negative information about their brand their measure of the individuals self-esteem dropped.  They took it personally. (Wired magazine had a nice write-up about the article.)

This is a pretty cool notion, that how we value ourselves is determined in part by things completely outside ourselves.  My guess is you should see similar patterns with not only brands we choose but also our favorite music, movies, and maybe our favorite local pizzeria.

But it gets even more interesting.  How exactly do people react when their brands are shown to be inferior?  When confronted with evidence of poor performance, people don’t just get sad then change their mind about the brand (“Oh, I guess Jif isn’t the best peanut butter after all…”).  Instead they continue to rate their brand highly in spite of evidence to the contrary.  They ignore the evidence.

What fills your bowl? (Photo courtesy of Jamiesrabbits)

That sounded familiar.  A series of political science studies at the University of Michigan in 2005 and 2006 showed the same pattern: Misinformed political partisans when shown the facts did not change their minds, but instead held more strongly to their misguided beliefs.  We don’t like being wrong, so instead of folding our hand we double-down.

These studies reveal something very interesting about the nature of self-esteem and our ability to be impartial when presented with new information.  As scientists we try very hard to be completely objective, and I think we are pretty good at it. Unless maybe it hits a little too close to home.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 2011.09.07 17:49

    I imagine brand loyalty also exists because of memory and upbringing. Your mother spread Jif on your bread and you probably have good memories of that. So someone attacking Jif is like someone attacking a positive memory (not directly, of course, but it can feel that way). My grandfather sold Chevrolets. For years I would take offense if someone knocked on a Chevy. It wasn’t until I was much older that I was able to separate the memory—and the person associated with that memory—from the brand. I think a lot of people use brands their parents used when they were young. And so when someone criticizes something they use, it’s as if they’re criticizing their parents and upbringing, indirectly. I imagine stubbornness comes from that, too.

  2. 2011.09.07 18:04

    That is a great point, Kara. The “classical” way people have thought about brand loyalty is as an interpersonal relationship, where the closer the relationship the stronger the loyalty. This might aptly describe your connections between Chevrolet and your grandfather. But if your friend or grandfather performed poorly, your own self-esteem shouldn’t drop. That is what they observed, and should only really happen if the brand is somehow tied to ourselves in an even more direct way.

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