Brand images are so powerful that merely carrying a shopping bag with company’s logo can affect how consumers feel about themselves, says research from the University of Minnesota. Study authors Deborah Roedder John and Ji Kyung Park say that the brand personality can rub off onto buyers, making them see themselves through the lens of the image, even if just for a short time.
In a study examining the power of branding, female shoppers were given either Victoria’s Secret shopping bags or plain pink shopping bags to carry around a mall. An hour later, participants filled out a questionnaire in which they chose which personality traits best described them, including qualities that can also be used to describe the Victoria’s Secret brand. Results indicated that shoppers who carried the branded bags were more likely to describe themselves as feminine, glamorous, and good-looking than those who had been given plain pink bags.
However, some people are more affected by brand personality than others, the researchers found. Participants who felt that their personality traits are fixed and cannot be improved by efforts at self-improvement were more likely to be affected by carrying a bag from Victoria’s Secret, while those who felt their personality traits were flexible and that they were capable of improving themselves, were less likely to be affected by the brand.
“Consumers most affected by their experience with Victoria’s Secret held certain beliefs about their personalities,” the study authors write publicly. “They believe their personal qualities are fixed and cannot be improved by their own efforts at self-improvement. Therefore, they look for ways to signal their positive qualities through other means, such as brands.”
Those who see their personality traits as flexible and feel capable of self-improvement are less likely to be affected by carrying a Victoria’s Secret bag, the researchers added.
Richard Neal, founder and chief information officer of Temetic Research says that the dynamic demonstrated by this research is related to the old adage that birds of a feather flock together.
“There exists two types of homophily that can influence behaviors underpinning the selected attributes of self-image of a shopper,” he explains. “The first type is called ‘status homophily’ this means that people with similar social status characteristics have a high probability of associating than those with less similar characteristics. And the second, ‘value homophily’ refers to the tendency to associate with others who think like you do.”
Status, Neal says, is what attracts such attention.
“In the case of a luxury brand—think: Tiffany—status homophily probably accounts for the draw,” he explains. “Shoppers want others to know, or think, they can afford a specific lifestyle, that they are part of the higher or elite social status as witnessed through the display of a luxury brand—and often the behavior that goes along with it.”
While Tiffany & Co. is a status brand, Birkenstock sandals, Neal says, is a lifestyle brand, demonstrating an example of value homophily.
“As a shopper, I display my lifestyle brand because this is how I think life should be lived, how I want others to comprehend my belief system that is aligned with my lifestyle that is validated through my presented brand,” he explains. “Furthermore, similar to status-driven homophily, I want to be able to identify others with similar ideologies and values—to define who amongst us is a member of our ‘tribe.’”
Why does one’s perception of flexibility in terms of personality traits and self-improvement affect which people are influenced by branding?
“Those people who were viewed as being more affected by brand personality were more attuned to exhibiting a specific intrinsic behavior focused upon a specific extrinsic desire,” Neal explains. “Victoria Secret’s brand image conveys clear connotations related to the brand. A word picture depicting that image would most likely involve keywords, such as ‘sexy,’ ‘confident,’ [and so on].”
The brand reputation and the shopper’s self-image connect to create the power of the brand’s image.
“By aligning oneself with the brand—displaying the brand—a shopper is taking on the conveyed image of the brand as a presented trait of the shopper herself,” he says. “And the power of the connotation is directly proportional and positively correlated with the popularity of the brand itself. So a shopper’s intrinsic behavior presented through touting a bag carrying a specific—and in most cases, popular—brand is based on that shopper’s desire to be part of the social grouping related to or reflecting the brand’s image portrayal.”
Consumers then translate the experience into: “’Look at the brand on my bag… I am a part of this group! Therefore I am obviously sexy and confident,’” Neal says.
The power of the little pink Victoria’s Secret bag is not unique. There is a famous little blue bag that also invites attention, as Michael Gaizutis, partner and brand strategist at San Francisco-based rno1 explains, citing the same luxury brand that Neal does.
After buying a gift for a loved one at Tiffany & Co., Gaizutis noticed that female passersby paid him some unusual attention.
“I left the store and started to venture on my way back to the car,” he says. “As I left, I had a million stares from every woman I passed. I thought to myself ‘Wow…this new shirt must really be doing it for me today.’”
While he was wearing a new, attractive shirt, that wasn’t what attracted feminine stares from women young and aged, Gaizutis realized.
“It was rather that little blue bag from Tiffany & Co. that left a lingering impression,” he says.
The Tiffany & Co. bag is “magical,” Gaizutis maintains.
“It connects with women, especially, on an emotional level,” he says. “It makes them feel: beautiful, successful, empowered, stunning and most of all…whimsical. This little blue bag is a fairy tale that comes to life. Regardless of what’s inside, it’s always amazing. Why is it amazing? Because of the connection, and the experience that runs parallel with it. And as such, boosting one’s self-image and self-worth, making them feel glamorous.”
While Tiffany & Co. and Victoria’s Secret make women feel beautiful and glamorous, men may feel a boost from brands like Porsche, Gaizutis notes.
“These branded products do make us feel good,” he contends. “They boost our confidence, they shift our attitudes and our perceptions. They create an added sense of worth to us, and those who are surrounded by these stellar branded products.”
While personality traits influence how shoppers may feel about themselves due to brand influence, what about other markers like age, race, gender?
“A brand’s influence is very much weighted by age, race and gender, just as it might be with personality traits (fixed vs. flexible) and how you’re wired at the core,” Gaizutis says. “Individuals who are most affected by various brands have a deep emotional connection with these brands, and witness a ‘brand trigger’ that sends off a little alarm telling them they want or desire such branded products.”
Because brands have a life of their own—or are biotic, as Gaizutis says—they grow and change with the customer.
“We all want to be sold something we want, not something we need,” he explains. “What it comes down to is a brand’s ability to hone into these specific criteria, and grow into biotic brands—those that connect with us at each and every touch point, that reach us on the most intimate level, that live and grow as change happens. They shift and shape, creating something we can’t live without. They are the Apples and Virgin Americas of the world. They get it…and we love them for it…and we keep wanting more.”
Because brands become such an integrated part of our lives, they naturally become part of our self-image, Neal notes.
“It comes as no surprise that our consumerism is soundly integrated as an attribute of our self-identity,” he concludes. “And our self-identity is heavily influenced by social and cultural factors—humans are, after all, social animals.”