Identity heft: Assistant professor’s research assigns weighty role to consumer self-concept

November 29, 2012 | Research, UToday, Business and Innovation
By Cynthia Nowak

“I shop therefore I am.”
— Barbara Kruger, American artist

“When it comes to predicting consumer choices, things get complicated.”
— Dr. Stanford Westjohn, UT assistant professor of international marketing

The complications of our hopped-to-shop consumer culture don’t faze him. Now in his fourth year as a faculty member, Dr. Stanford Westjohn continues to conduct research that investigates what he calls consumer-level phenomena, offering insights on what drives people’s buying behaviors.

Dr. Stanford Westjohn posed for a photo by a famous consumer brand.

“Part of what I’ve looked at are issues of identity and how they play roles in an international marketing context,” said the assistant professor of international marketing who teaches in the College of Business and Innovation. “I’m able to draw on a good body of psychological and sociological research that’s been done on identity — how we define ourselves, about the selves we want to become, and how it all influences our purchasing habits.”

Take the conspicuous consumer we’ve all seen (or been), he said: “the 300-pound guy walking down the street wearing a basketball jersey and basketball shoes. He’s clearly not a player, but in his mind he identifies with the sport — maybe he once played or plans to play, or he’s just an avid fan.

“He sees himself as part of a community of ball players. Being involved in basketball is part of his identity and influences his purchases.”

In his most recently published research, Westjohn took a similar concept of community identification — in this case, whether a consumer identifies more strongly with a global or a national community.

For the study, his team mocked up several pairs of advertisements for popular brands. One Nike ad paired the famous swoosh with a “uniting the human race” slogan; the other featured a “Team USA” approach. The iconic Coca-Cola bottle was central in graphics offering either a world-view sentiment or one specific to America. McDonald’s offered either national or global consciousness with those fries.

Participants’ preferences on each paired ads were collected. A subsequent survey measured the degree to which they identified themselves primarily as a citizen of the world or as an American first.

The results, Westjohn said, confirmed his expectations: “The more strongly a person identified himself with either community, the more the identification corresponded to the advertisement preferences.”

The implications for businesses are real, he added. Consumer identifications do exist, which may in turn influence the way a company positions its advertising to reach a target market.

Westjohn took the study one step further by assessing participants according to the Five Factor Model used by many psychologists, according to which five genetically determined core dimensions — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism — define personality.

“Identifications seem to be largely culture-based — what we learn growing up. Since the ‘big five’ personality traits are genetic, though, it’s rather discomforting to think of inborn traits influencing our choices,” he noted.

His research showed openness and agreeableness playing roles, with the former predicting a participant’s responsiveness to a global-message ad, and the latter inclining an individual to prefer a national theme.

Westjohn, who worked in the business sector before entering academia, is mindful of his research’s ultimate utility in the marketplace. “Understanding personality traits adds to the richness of the process, but the implication for business is how identity can drive behavior or attitudes,” he said. “That’s why the research on identification will be of more use.

“We all have so much emotional investment in how we identify ourselves. It’s no wonder that things get complicated.”

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