Is social comparison an answer to better marketing?

A marketing professor weighs consumers’ self-view against their openness to innovation adoption.

Is social comparison an answer to better marketing?

Social comparison has always been a fixture in our lives. Even before the arrival of social media, we have always compared ourselves to others in our social worlds to determine our personal self-worth. It’s a fundamental human impulse that may influence our behaviour as consumers.

For example, we often buy products that promise superiority and uniqueness to build a positive self-image. But does comparing ourselves with people who we see as superior always lead to purchase, or will it make us resist new products instead?

Social comparison is important for marketers because it guides people’s behaviour at any given moment. Companies that use celebrity endorsements often do so with the rationale that if a customer shares or would like to identify with a particular celebrity, then they will be more likely to go out and buy the product.

But not all innovative products succeed in the market. In fact, new products have registered failure rates as high as 80 to 90 per cent. With the stakes higher than ever for new innovations to drive positive social and economic progress, we wanted to find out if upward social comparison would always enhance consumers’ attitudes toward innovation adoption.

In a study with my colleague Jae Chang from Rice University, we analysed whether consumers who engage in upward social comparison adopt or resist innovation depending on whether they use holistic or analytical thinking when considering new purchases.

While many would predict that the symbolic benefits of innovation adoption would be appealing to consumers seeking social superiority, we found that some consumers, in fact, resist innovation.

When people use holistic thinking, they tend to rely on their overall impression and intuitive feelings to form attitudes, resulting in greater innovation adoption. By contrast, when people engage in analytical thinking, they rely on reason-based processing and logical considerations to form their attitudes, which results in greater resistance to new product adoption.

Innovation adoption dependent on mindsets

We carried out three experiments involving a total of more than 500 participants and using a variety of highly innovative products with different characteristics. These products include Lark, a newly introduced weight-loss app which seeks to improve skill sets as well as Zuta, a portable printer brand which boosts person’s self-view symbolically without improving their skill sets.

In the first experiment we found that when consumers engage in upward social comparison, they want to defend a positive view of themselves. For these consumers, holistic thinking leads them to focus on the overall positive symbolic benefits of innovation adoption. Analytical thinking, however, leads them to consider the potential risks associated with innovation adoption.

These risks could include performance risk such as negative usage experiences; economic risks of paying a high price for the product; or social risk such that others may not approve the innovative product.

Building on these findings, the second experiment showed that participants who experience self-threat induced by upward social comparison and also engage in analytical thinking tend to focus on potential adoption risks when evaluating innovation. These consumers then resist innovation adoption.

Our final experiment showed that when holistic thinkers affirm their positive self-view through other means, they no longer seek innovation adoption.

The experiments revealed a practical way by which marketers can use our findings when promoting highly innovative products. They need to not only focus on the unmet symbolic benefits for holistic thinking consumers but also consider how to mitigate potential risks, whether it’s performance, financial or social risks, inherent in new innovations to attract analytical thinkers.

Bridging emotion with strategy

It’s tempting to believe that people who judge themselves against others whom they believe are superior will naturally view innovation adoption as a chance to bolster and defend their self-view. However, our study clearly demonstrated that marketers also have to consider whether consumers think holistically or analytically to influence their purchase decisions.

For example, to promote a new line of luxury watches to consumers who desire to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, Rolex marketers may wish to highlight the status symbol associated with these watches while emphasising the holistic feelings of victory and superiority.

On the other hand, when advertising its new MacBook Pro to consumers who aspire to excel and surpass others in their professional work, Apple could consider describing analytical features to help consumers justify their purchase decisions, such as product warrantees and customer-service hotlines that could assure consumers that any potential risks in adopting the laptop would be minimised.

A deep understanding of the consumer is essential to promoting the successful adoption of product innovations from driverless cars and smart watches to virtual assistants and smart fridges. Companies often appeal to consumers by extolling the virtues of their product that will improve consumers’ social standing. But by bringing together the emotions of social comparison and the thinking style of consumers, companies can create powerful and relevant campaigns that engage customers and ultimately drive adoption of their innovations.

Leonard Lee is Professor of Marketing at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.

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