Who You Are Affects What You Buy: The Influence of Consumer Identity on Brand Preferences

By Morgan A. Ilaw
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2014, Vol. 5 No. 2 | pg. 3/3 |


The purpose of this study was to reexamine the extent to which individuals rely on their self-concepts when they determine their brand preference. Consistent with previous research, the two hypotheses regarding self-image congruity and social identity were fully supported, suggesting that both variables strongly influenced brand preference. Significant differences between minority and non-minority participants were not found for self-image congruity, but were found for social identity. Gender differences were also not found for self-image congruity, but for social identity, as males accounted for more of the relationship between social identity and brand preference than females.

Self-Image Congruity

As described by the self-congruity theory, the congruence between one’s self-concept and the product / brand’s image significantly influenced consumer behavior, particularly brand preferences. Support for the self-image congruity theory was found in this study, as the self-image congruity score strongly predicted brand preference score. Consistent with previous research, these findings suggested that these participants perceived the cues offered by the brands as images similar to their own self-concept more than not, and used that information to determine whether they preferred that brand more than any other brand of the same product (Schneck & Holman, 1980).

This supports the conclusion Okivist and Shaw (1987) made: purchase or preference was not likely to occur when there was a lack of congruency. This relationship exists because any information inconsistent with a consumer’s self-concept was unlikely to gain their attention, acceptance or retention, thus not impacting their desire to choose that brand over the next (Heath & Scott, 1993). They also may have not viewed the brand’s attributes as being similar to their own, therefore, not influencing their brand preference scores.

The statistically significant relationship between self-image and brand preference among all genders and all races/ethnicities should not be too surprising because the process of expressing and reinforcing one’s self through the use of brands is not a discriminatory practice: All men and women of all races desire to convey their internal values and beliefs to the external world. Thus, brand preferences based on congruency between brand images and individuals’ self-concepts should be equally strong as every individual undergoes identity formation, and searches for symbols whose meaning can further create or define his or her self-concept (Mihalcea & Catoiu, 2008).

A set of four studies conducted by Chaplin & John (2005) sought to examine the age at which individuals began using brands to create and communicate their self-concepts. Results found that self-brand connections formed between middle school and early adolescence, and these connections increased as the individuals’ experiences and conceptual understanding of brands increases. But this study cannot run a regression analysis based on age because the number of participants was too small (n = 5).

Social Identity Theory

Previous research highlighted that consumers were more likely to accept brand meanings that are associated with their own group (the in-group) versus brands that were associated with groups to which they don’t belong (the out-group). Although not as strong as a predictor as self-image congruity, as hypothesized, those with higher social identities (i.e. higher in-group associations) had higher brand preference scores. Further support by previous research indicated that those with high group identification were more likely to “see and think of themselves as in-group members, to feel close and similar to in-group members . . . and to behave in ways that benefit the in-group” (Tropp & Wright, 2001).

Scholars have noted that the social categories that individuals placed themselves into were parts of a structured society that only existed relative to contrasting categories (i.e. men vs. women). They gained their sense of self largely from these social categories which they belonged to, and developed a unique selfconcept from belonging to a variety of different groups. Having a particular social identity means “being at one with a certain group, being like others in the group, and seeing things from the group’s perspective.” (Strets & Burke, 2000). To further understand how individuals used their group identification to make decisions about brand preference, additional analyses examined whether race or sex affected the relationship.

The current study found a statistically significant relationship between social identity and brand preference. This finding is consistent with past research, which suggested that members of minority groups valued the “distinctive qualities of their group . . . more than do majority group members.” Additionally, members of the minority group tended to identify more with their group than the majority group members (Dovidio, Gaertner & Saguy, 2007). Other research concluded that compared to whites, Asian-Americans and Hispanic- Americans tended to be more interdependent and less independent in their self-construal, meaning the minority group focused more on the social self and how the self related to others than their subjective opinions of themselves when determining their self-concepts (Mihalcea & Catoiu, 2008). Relating to this previous research, the results from this study are relevant, as minority individuals relied more on the social feedback from their in-group associations to guide their behavior than the non-minority individuals, which influenced their brand preferences.

Although previous research has not highlighted significant sex differences on the relationship between social identity and brand preference, this study found a statistically significant relationship between the two variables among males, not among females. This surprisingly suggested that males relied more on the feedback from their friends and membership of their group than females to make decisions about their brand preferences. Contrary to previous research, men were more likely than not to “participate in the group’s culture, to distinguish themselves from the out-group and to show attraction to group in their behavior” (Cameron & Lalonde, 2001; Stets & Burke, 2000).

A possible explanation for this may be because the brands chosen were more salient for males than females, meaning that the brands increased the influence of the male’s membership to the “men” gender social identity and in-group. According to Stets and Burke (2000), salience is determined by accessibility, or the readiness of a given category to become activated in a person. Of five the brands accessible, the majority of the males chose either Heineken or Mac, with the exception of two who chose Lululemon or TOMS. In summary, male’s social identities may have been triggered more so than female’s based on the brand choices available. While males may have perceived Heineken and Mac as the only brands consistent and acceptable to their social group (i.e. men), triggering a salient social identity, female participants may have found that all brands available were consistent to their in-group, as it was acceptable to consume all five brands as a “woman.” Since the options weren’t as clear-cut in triggering an identity as it was for the males, a less “women” identity may have been activated, and instead an identity such as “athlete” “service-oriented” may have been stimulated, allowing the females to think of this subgroup when completing their responses. Support for these inferences were noted by Stets and Burke (2000), who stated that when an identity was salient, responses were “deliberate and self-regulated” and group members behaved in a manner “to match their behavior to the standards relevant to the social identity, so as to confirm and enhance their social identification with the group.” The prominence of the male’s social identity and in-group association to the group “men” could explain why the relation between social identity and brand preference was stronger for males than females.

Lastly, an interesting relationships worth noting is the influence of social identity threat and consumer preference. As mentioned previously, according to White and Argo (2008), when an aspect of a consumer’s identity was threatened in a specific situation, consumers were motivated to avoid products associated with that threatened identity and instead preferred products associated with an alternative identity. To test this finding, the Pampers brand was included in the list of brands for participants to choose from with the understanding that many would not choose this brand, for fear that it was not congruent with their social identity. Only three participants chose the brand in the first question, suggesting that the majority chose only the brand that was consistent with a protected aspect of their identity.


Despite the limitations, the current study reaffirms insights into the relationship between the selfconcept and social identity on the one hand and brand preference on the other. Marketers and advertisers interested in developing brands or campaigns could benefit most from this information. By understanding how brands are consumed as symbols of identities, marketing and advertising companies must ensure they understand the main attributes that constitute their target audiences’ self-concepts to develop distinctive and attractive brands that match those same traits. To ensure that a brand is preferred in untapped markets, marketers must develop brand images closely matching the self-perceptions of potential consumers, and should design advertising messages to target their self-concepts. Additionally, campaigns focused on attracting minority groups should focus on characteristics consistent with minority cultural identity. Although self-image congruity and social identity do not guarantee brand preference, crafting messages that are directed to consumer’s self-concepts streamlines marketing plans to be most effective.


While the present research had strengths, several limitations of the study should be noted. The results of the study may not be generalizable to other populations, as the majority of the sample were females from a small southern liberal arts school, self-identified as white, and were seniors in college. Additionally, the brand choices were limited so they may have not been reflective of the personalities the participants believed they embodied, thus resulting in less congruence with self-image and the perceived image of the brand. A third limitation of the current study was the use of only the actual self-concept. The findings obtained could have yielded different, stronger results if the ideal and social self-concept had been examined as well. Finally, the use of “Mac” as a brand could have confused participants, as Mac is a product, whereas Apple is overarching brand. However, respondents who completed the survey did not seem to be discouraged by using the response option to answer questions, suggesting that they thought of the Apple brand when completing the questions anyway.

Factors other than self-image congruity and social identity influenced their brand preferences, such as brand advertising, brand affordability, or brand availability (Ayanwale, Allimi & Ayanbimipe, 2005). Future studies can incorporate these factors.


The author would like to extend her thanks to Professor Copeland at Elon University for his guidance, support and advice, without which the article could not be published. The author is also thankful to Dr. Gabie Smith of Elon University for her assistance, as well as the several reviewers who helped revise this article.


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A: Questionnaire

1. Please choose one of the following 5 brands and then use this brand to complete questions 3 through 7.

  • Lululemon
  • Heineken
  • Mac
  • Pampers
  • TOMS Shoes

2. I am … [List of 30 adjectives that would describe yourself]

3. Brand X (the one you chose above is)… [List of 30 adjectives that describe the product you chose in question 1]

4. Please indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree with the following statements in relation to the product you chose in question 1 (below is called brand X):

Wearing/carrying/consuming brand X is consistent with how I see myself.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

Wearing/carrying/consuming brand X reflects who I am.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

I can completely identify with brand X.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

If I were a brand, I would be brand X.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

The brand X image corresponds to my self-image in many respects.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

Through brand X, I can express what I find important in life.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

5. Please indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree with the following statements:

Brand X is my preferred brand over any other brand of the same product.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

I would use brand X more than I would use any other brand of the same product.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

When comparing similar products, I would be inclined to buy brand X over any other brand.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

I value brand X more than other brands of the same product.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

Brand X’s products meet my expectations.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

Overall, I am satisfied with brand X.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

6. Please indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree with the following statements:

Brand X helps me feel a part of a bigger group.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

I use brand X to feel a part of a larger group.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

My friends use brand X.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

I use brand X to be like my friends.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

I receive positive feedback from people while using brand X.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

I feel connected to my friends while using brand X.
Strongly | Disagree | Disagree | Neither | A/D | Agree | Strongly Agree

7. How familiar are you with the brand you chose?

  • Very familiar
  • Familiar
  • Never heard of it

8. Sex

  • Male
  • Female

9. Racial background

  • White
  • Black
  • Asian
  • Hispanic
  • American Indian
  • Other

10. Year

  • First-year
  • Sophomore
  • Junior
  • Senior
  • Grad student
  • Non-student

B: Words used to assess participants’ brand and self-identities









TOMS Shoes


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