Why fashionistas dislike copycats

Sauder marketing prof explores mysteries of consumer behaviour

Copying your best friend’s sense of style may cause her to feel more annoyed than flattered, according to Katherine White, an associate professor of marketing at the Sauder School of Business who looks at what influences and motivates consumer behaviour.

In a paper that appears in the December issue of Journal of Consumer Research, White says that far from feeling flattered, consumers who consider themselves unique and highly distinctive are willing to alter, discard or exchange a possession rather than be seen with the same item as someone similar to themselves.

With co-author Jennifer Argo, professor in the School of Business at the University of Alberta, White ran a series of experiments that explored participants’ desire to be distinctive along with their actions once their sense of uniqueness was threatened.

A pivotal experiment involved 76 female undergraduates who agreed to complete computer tasks of varying levels of difficulty in return for a free pair of sandals. The students were assigned to work in pairs. Only one person in each pair was an actual study participant. The other student was a “plant”  to act as a fashion copycat.

When the pairs finished their tasks on the computer, they were shown a display of sandals. An attendant would ask for their selection, shoe size and return with the requested style. There were six pairs of sandals of varying colours and details, all pre-tested to be of equal attractiveness. The “real” undergraduate would get to choose first, followed by the copycat who would invariably select the exact same pair of sandals as her partner.

Later, participants were given a chance to trade the pair of sandals for another. They were instructed to raise their hand if they wanted to see the alternative and someone would bring the substitute pair over for them to inspect. Participants who raised their hand were shown a plain pair of white sandals that had pre-tested as being significantly less attractive and desirable than the sandals in the original choice set.  Once participants saw the alternative they were asked if they would like to switch.

“We were really surprised when 56 per cent of participants would rather switch than have their sense of uniqueness threatened,” White says. “That’s pretty big considering that studies under other conditions would see about 20 per cent switching from their first choice.”

She explains that consumers get invested in their purchases. “People go through a lot of psychological processes to arrive at a decision. We like to justify our choices, whether it’s ‘I really love it!’ or ‘I’m so smart for finding this deal.’”

However, when consumers exert a low degree of effort to obtain a possession, they’re less likely to reject the product, White adds.  “The uniqueness factor is tied into something that the individual has spent some time working toward or looking for.”

Similarly, findings show that participants only wanted to get rid of products that were copied when the possessions were symbolic in nature – products which communicate something about oneself to others.
“It’s more threatening to a person’s sense of distinctiveness to be copied on perfume selection than something more mundane like an iron,” she explains.

“From a consumer standpoint, it’s interesting to understand why you might be upset if your best friend shows up at a Christmas party with the same ‘one-of-a-kind’ top that you found in a local designer’s boutique.”

As for marketers, the research underscores the importance of giving consumers immediate ways to assert their distinctiveness. “It can be as simple as cell phone makers giving extra options for the face plate or watches that come with several colours of wrist bands,” says White.

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