University researcher explores how connection to brand affects self-esteem

The guy who only wears Nike. The girl who only drinks Coca-Cola products. The die-hard Packers fan.

All of these people have something in common: A preference for a particular brand. But for some people, this self-brand connection might run deeper.

Tiffany Barnett White, associate professor of business administration at the University, wanted to find out just how deep this relationship can be. In a recent study, she found that, rather than using a brand as a complement to or reflection of one’s personality, some consumers connect the brand to their own self-concept.

To measure this phenomenon, White and her partners, Shirley Cheng, a doctoral student at Hong Kong Baptist University, and Lan Nguyen Chaplin, an associate professor at Villanova University, administered self-esteem evaluations before and after exposing a subject to objectively negative information about the subject’s favorite brand.

They found that people who have strong self-brand connections, when exposed to objectively negative brand information, reported meaningfully lower levels of self-esteem.

“They weren’t just in a bad mood. They felt bad about themselves,” White said.

For example, White said, when someone with a high self-brand connection to the brand Adidas was shown information about how sponsoring the Olympics was a big marketing flop for the company, he or she demonstrated self-concept implications.

“They were more likely to agree with statements like ‘I’m not the person I want to be,’” White said.

White made it clear that the phenomenon doesn’t apply with someone who just likes a particular brand or someone who uses the brand frequently.

“It’s something different,” she said. “It’s a kind of connection a consumer feels with the brand that’s deep and meaningful.”

Peter Resendez, junior in LAS, said he has a deeper connection to his favorite team, the Yankees, but doesn’t feel that he would be an example of someone with a self-brand connection strong enough to impact his self-worth.

How the Yankees perform does, however, have an impact on his emotions, he said. When his favorite team doesn’t take the World Series title, he considers it a losing season and is disappointed when it’s over. While he would consider it an obsession, he doesn’t let it define him.

As a marketing professor, White said, she hopes her study will help brands see the broader implications of negative performance. Beyond the risk of consumers being dissatisfied or switching to a new brand, it makes consumers with a strong self-brand connection more sensitive to certain types of competitive appeals, she said.

Her findings might also be used as a cautionary tale, helping consumers understand their relationships with brands.

“It reminds people to not lose themselves in a self-brand connection … to avoid misattributing this negative information to one’s self-concept.”

Tushar Nagananda, junior in Engineering, said he tries to defy the idea of self-brand connections and emphasizes the concept of choice at every chance he gets. One brand in particular that he tries to avoid is Apple, a brand that people frequently feel connected to.

“I guess it’s kind of a non-conformist idea,” Nagananda said. “I try to buy what’s best for me, rather than what everyone else is doing.”