Generic brands and self-esteem

Paul Raven @ 11-01-2011

The anti-Apple snarker in me wants to claim this as some sort of victory (“See – this is why Macbook owners are so damn smug!”), but that’s just me airing my own (admittedly irrational) prejudices*. I think there may be something far more important to tease out from the discovery that generic non-brand products have a damaging effect on the self-esteem of those who buy them:

“Even incidentally used cheaper, generic products have the ironic consequence of harming one’s self-image via a sense of worthlessness,” Yin-Hsien Chao and Wen-Bin Chiou report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They found this dampening of self-esteem has potentially negative consequences in the realms of both money and romance.

Of course, all such statements must come with caveats:

… it’s worth noting that in these experiments, the use of a generic product was both involuntary and public. The results may or may not hold true for someone who makes the choice himself, and does so in a private setting.

Nevertheless, it’s striking that in these experiments, using a non-brand-name item for a just few minutes had a measurable negative impact. This suggests “we should not overlook the possible backlash of using generic products,” the researchers warn.

This says something pretty powerful about the effects of branding and media saturation, though we’d have to do a lot more work to find out how and why it happens. But the link between consumer choices and self-identity seems clear, and fits with a great deal of media theory from the last four decades or so; what I’d like to know is whether those effects are stronger in the infinite-duplex-channels landscape of the networked world than they were in the golden era of limited simplex broadcast media (TV and radio). How much influence does the opinion of our fellow consumers have? Are we more influenced by those closest to us, or by those more distant figures we aspire to be like?

[ * More seriously, I think the stark polarity between Apple fanpersons and Apple detractors is a really good illustration of the complexity I’m talking about, there: what is it about Apple products that causes some people to identify with them so strongly, and others to reject them equally forcefully? Branding must be a big part of it, but there are definitely more factors in play. ]