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. 1/3 |


This study examined the extent to which individuals used their self-concepts to determine brand preference. It was predicted that individuals would prefer brands with images congruent with their own self-image more than brands’ images inconsistent with their self-image. The study also predicted that others would influence consumers’ brand preference, and participants would prefer brands consonant with their in-group associations. A total of 65 participants completed a survey inquiring about their self-image congruity, social identity and brand preferences. Linear regression analyses showed significant support for both hypotheses. Additional analyses among subgroups showed a statistically significant relationship between the self-image congruity and brand preference relationship among whites, minority group, males and females. But the statistically significant relationship did not exist between social identity and brand preference among whites and females.


Walking down the street, one may observe an individual sporting a Yankee sweatshirt, carrying a Starbucks coffee mug, and wearing a pair of Levis jeans. The onlooker may deduce that the walker is a baseball fan, enjoys high-quality coffee, and appreciates the authenticity and heritage associated with a historical brand. Whether or not that Yankee fan was aware, the brands he chose to consume made a statement about who he was, what he was like, and what he enjoyed. The products people buy can act as signals of identity, allowing consumers to construct, express and communicate useful information about their self-image to themselves and to others. Consumers not only purchase products, but lifestyles. As a result, consumption becomes a vehicle for exhibition of their identity construct.

Over time, consumer researchers have acknowledged the important interplay between the self-concept and the purchasing behaviors of consumers, showing that consumer purchase brands or products that were consistent with their self-image. This current research aims to investigate the extent to which consumers search for brands with symbolic images similar to their self-identity as a way to enhance and display who they are to the world. Further, this study will examine how consumers prefer certain brands based on their individual self-concepts.

Literature Review

The author reviewed literature regarding the various aspects of the self, identity and symbolic brand meaning to provide a foundational background necessary to understand these associations.

The Self

According to researchers, the self – a psychological construct that denotes who and what we are – represented the totality of one’s attitudes, perceptions and beliefs of oneself that influenced behavior (Stokburger- Sauer, Ratneshwar & Sen, 2012). As one develops, the individual further defines a principal value of self that regulates one’s life. The more valued the self, the more organized and consistent the individual’s behavior. The structure of the self was organized as a result of the interaction with the environment, such as interactions with parents, families and significant others. As the individual received reactions from his environment, his self-concept formed, which was a component of the self-system influenced by contextual factors (Grubb, Harrison & Grathwohl, 1967). A definition created by Sirgy (1982) that many scholars used, referred to the self-concept as “the totality of the individual’s thoughts and feelings having reference to himself as an object.” Basically self-concept is how people understand, think about and represent themselves (Leary & Tangney, 2003).

As psychological and sociological research increased, the complexity of the construct did as well. Numerous investigators have explained self-concept as a single variable of the actual self-concept. Others have construed the self-concept as a multi-dimensional construct comprising of two or more components including the actual self-concept and the ideal self-concept. Despite the various terminologies, this paper will refer to the self-concept as a single construct, referring to all ideas one has about himself; the “totality.” This avoids the risk of the concept losing its meaning, and allows it to continue to be a well-organized and consistent construct that guides behavior (Mehta, 1999).

While the current study will define self-concept as a single construct, an important perspective on self-concept is social identity theory, which has received support from consumer research and is worth mentioning. Scholars have defined social identity theory as a subset of the self-concept that is derived from group membership of social groups. In other words, social identity refers to the individual’s subjective perception of what defined the “us” in the internalized group membership with which one belonged. It is the sense of belonging one felt to that group or organization (Han, Kim & Park, 2001). Previous research indicated that consumers were likely to accept meanings from brands associated or consistent with their own group (an in-group), and reject meanings associated or consistent with a group to which they did not belong (an outgroup). For example, if one considered herself to be an athlete, and her member group of athletes wore Asics running shoes, she may have chosen to wear Asics as a symbol of her affiliation. Additionally, consumers avoided out-group brands, because they did not want that meaning to be attributed to themselves, such as a “preppy” individual not wanting to be associated with the “Etnies” shoe brand that skaters may wear. This research examines the effects of self-concept and social identity theory on consumer brand preference.

Increasing consumer research literature has explored the self-concept as a useful construct to understand consumer choice. In earlier works, self-concept has been used to investigate product perception, implicit behavioral patterns, and specific behavior; however, the bulk of the current research is devoted to understanding brand/product preference, purchase intention and usage (Malhotra, 1987). Because this paper will also focus on consumer brand preference, understanding how individuals perceive brands as a way to enhance their self-image is important. Following these findings by Levy (1959), a series of self-concept theories were created to predict the role of consumer self-concept in purchasing behaviors, such as Sirgy’s self-image congruity theory.

Self-Concept and Self-Image/Product-Image Congruity

Previous studies have emphasized the significance of self-concept and consumer preference, as purchases made by consumers were directly influenced by the image individuals had of themselves (Onkivist & Shaw, 1987). Sirgy (1982) defined self-image congruity (also often referred to as product-image congruity) as the process of consumers purchasing products/brands that they perceived as possessing symbolic images similar to the image they hold of themselves. This theory postulated that products and brands have symbolic meanings and display certain images. Consumers’ choices to purchase, display, and use the products or brands helped them communicate the symbolic meaning to themselves as well as to others. Thus, the greater the congruity between human characteristics that exhibit consumers’ senses of self and the characteristics that depicted a brand, the greater the consumers’ preferences were for the brand (Sung, Choi & Tinkman, 2012).

Support for this theory has been found through numerous studies, suggesting that congruity can influence consumers’ product preferences and their purchase intentions (Jamal & Goode, 2001). Belk (1988) determined that consumers preferred products that matched their self-concept because the purchases acted as forms of self-expression. Ericksen’s (1996) study indicated that a relationship between self-image congruity and purchase intention existed among European consumers who most related to the American car, the Ford Escort. Those with more congruence to the Ford Escort were more likely to purchase the automobile. Other researchers concluded that purchase was not likely to occur when there was a lack of congruency between a product-image and self-concept (Onkivist & Shaw, 1987), suggesting that “any product information that isn’t consistent with a consumer’s self-concept is unlikely to gain their attention, acceptance or retention” (Heath & Scott, 1993).

Due to this paper’s concentration on the self-image congruity, it is crucial to examine the process through which brands become symbols. This next section emphasizes how brands achieve meaning through associations, and the process that consumers undergo to attribute the brand’s characteristics to their own identity.

Brands as Symbols

The terms “brand” and “product” have been used frequently throughout this paper, though proper distinction has not been attributed to each term. Product refers to the single, tangible item or entity a company creates (Kaufman, 2010), while a brand is the “promise, the big idea, and expectations that reside in each consumer’s mind about a product, service or company.” Thus, as the use of brands to express and validate consumer identity becomes a central tenet through consumer research, exploring the process through which brands achieve symbolic promise has become increasingly interesting; particularly how it achieves enough recognition to serve as a communicative representation of one’s identity.

In order for a symbol to serve as a communicative device, the brand must achieve social recognition, and its meaning must be clearly understood in society (Grubb & Grathwohl, 1967). A symbol refers to anything that stands for or represents something else. People have learned to react to symbols by associating the symbol with other things. A red light has not always compelled people to hit the brake pedal, but after pairing the color red and the stopping behavior long enough, they naturally became accustomed to the symbol. Once the symbol develops and becomes known, it influences consumers on its own, evoking common reactions. It’s no longer necessary to know the origin or how the reactions to the symbol came about once the symbol is learned, as the meaning of the symbol remains potent in the mind of consumers. For example, consumers use bottled water because it began as a symbolic statement about our identification with a healthy, active lifestyle learned in the late 1970s, which continues to propel consumer behavior today (Sutherland, 2008).

Brands are often viewed as marketing tools developed to differentiate the company from its competition as well as provide value to consumers. Brands are valued because they reaffirm people’s principles or beliefs. They may also be used to display consumers’ knowledge of culture, taste or style, exhibit income or wealth or communicate membership to particular social or professional groups. Additionally, research has shown that brands conveyed buried aspects of one’s self-image, as consumers often chose products that were considered appropriate images of themselves (Chernev, Hamilton & Gal, 2011). Therefore, “the brands we buy and the brands we associate with often make powerful statements about us to ourselves as well as to others” (Sutherland, 2008).

Much research has supported the notion that brands are emblems of identity, and viewed as vehicles for expression for consumers. Through the development of self-concept and social identity, consumers search for goods and symbols to represent externally how they feel internally. Scholars have defined the extent to which the perceived image matches the individual’s self-image as self-image congruity, which as a theory, has received much support from studies over the years. However, the majority of the research conducted about consumer self-concept and brand preference was performed decades ago, some as late as the 1950s and 60s. Therefore, revisiting studies examining the influence of the self on brand preference is warranted.

The Current Study

This current study aims to reproduce previous findings concerning the self-concept and brand preference by investigating the extent to which individuals’ internal identity impacts brand choice among a set a given brands. Expanding upon the aforementioned research, this current study intends to identify relationships between self-concept, social identity and brand preference, particularly by examining whether self-image congruity positively affects consumer brand preference. A survey methodology was employed to evaluate participants’ self-concepts, social identities, and brand preferences. Applying the self-image congruity theory, consumers will prefer brands that are more consistent with their self-concept more than brands that are not consistent with their self-concept. Additionally, to account for the influence of others on the self-concept, the second hypothesis is based on the social identity theory, and predicts that consumers will prefer brands consonant with their in-group associations.

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