Generic brands and self-esteem

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. ]

4 thoughts on “Generic brands and self-esteem”

  1. I think it says something pretty powerful about the stupid herd mentality of the masses. It’s a steep price to pay for “belonging” — at least, it is in the eyes of an individualist like myself.

  2. I don’t know about Mactards, but I’m damn proud of my unpretentious unbranded products and thrift store clothes. Perhaps that’s a sort of brand in itself, in the loose universal sense of the term ‘brand’, a Cayce Pollard-esque un-brand or anti-brand. I guess that’s kind of what grunge was; Kobain wasn’t consciously a style, he was just wearing whatever he had laying around, and later it became a capital B Brand you could buy at the designer store.

    I mean, if you’re used to “fitting in with your scene-friends” and paying ridiculous premiums for a little stamp of approval on a product of near-identical construction made by the same underpaid Chinese kids, then yes, you might feel left out if you don’t have it. But personally, I feel better about not supporting the BS game of branding and I don’t generally “chill” with people who do. And those who don’t like it can suck my seven year old generic camera-less cell phone and patched-up hand-me-down t-shirt!

    Brandless rocks!

  3. I agree with winter, i have never been a brand person. Last time i was, i was in midle school. thank goodness for that. I think the more aware about science politics or just the way world works a bit the more trivial brands become.

  4. I’ve actually found in my experimentation with off-branded foods that some are superior to the big-name brands. Breakfast cold cereal in particular seems to be ‘fresher’ in the discount brands, as compared to the big-name brands.

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