consumer psychology

Socially Anxious People May Avoid Prestigious Brands

Paris Hilton seen wearing a pink Moschino outfit and matching Barbie iPhone case while taking her new Pomeranian shopping in the East Village neighborhood of NYC on October 17, 2014.
Photo: Webber/Splash News/Corbis

Whether or not brands are your friend, a lot of research has shown that people form weirdly deep connections to them. These consumers have a sense that certain brands represent who they are in important ways, and they often want to communicate that fact by displaying their allegiance to the brands in question. In a recent paper in Marketing Letters, a team led by Eunjin Kim of the Missouri School of Journalism wanted to examine brands from a different angle: What might cause people to avoid or downplay their connection to brands that are normally seen as prestigious?

First, the team had 117 undergrads name the brands with which they most strongly identified in a number of different categories, and then rate, on a scale of one to seven, “brand identification, brand prestige, brand distinctiveness, and ATSCI.” That last measure, ATSCI, is key — it stands for “attention to social comparison information,” and it “refers to a person’s degree of sensitivity to social comparison cues.” People with high ATSCI are more keen to these cues.

Then the researchers, drawing on the data they had already gathered, asked 391 students to complete an exercise in which they rated how much they preferred one T-shirt (well, an image of it) over another. For men, the T-shirts were Old Navy (seen as low prestige) or Polo (high); for women, they were Old Navy or Polo (again, high). Sometimes the shirts had small logos, and sometimes they had big logos.

For the Old Navy shirts, there was no correlation between a study participant’s level of ATSCI and logo-size preference. But students with high ATSCI — again, those who are more obsessive about social cues — were more likely to choose the smaller logos for the prestigious brands.

Here’s how the research attempt to explain this:

Our work … demonstrates that brand avoidance behaviors can also be engendered simply by social-evaluative uncertainty among high ATSCI consumers. Desiring assimilation with others, these individuals are chronically apprehensive about the reactions of their peers, a proposition verified by data from our preliminary studies. High ATSCI consumers consequently keep a low profile in their brand choices, preferring to blend in and not stand out, minimizing scrutiny and possible criticism from others.

The idea here is that the more sensitive you are to social comparisons, the more risk-averse you are when figuring out which brand associations to display. ”[High ATSCI] individuals are anxious to protect their current social status and are not necessarily looking to improve their social status,” the researchers write.

I guess if someone came up to you after work and said, “You think you have the right to wear a Polo shirt?!” that would be pretty embarrassing.

Insecure People May Avoid Prestigious Brands