By Darren Dahl

For decades marketers have relied on envy to elevate their brands and spur consumers to buy. In myriad TV ads people peer longingly over the fence toward their neighbour’s new car, or their fancy lawnmower, or their glowing holiday light display. Other ads show people envying a better-dressed—and usually more successful—colleague or a fitter friend who somehow managed to lose the weight.

Some brands have been even more explicit: Gucci’s Envy perfume, Expedia suggests consumers book trips to avoid “vacation envy”, LG’s EnV cell phone and HP boasts an Envy line of laptops.

Consumers’ self-esteem the key
At some point we all desire something that others have, so it stands to reason that companies would target those basic human instincts. After all, if someone experiences envy over a product, the drive to buy will surely follow, right?

Not necessarily. According to our research, the answer is often yes, but the tactic can also backfire in a big way and it boils down to consumers’ self-esteem1.

Envy happens when we compare ourselves to others who appear superior in an area that’s important to us—they have a better job, a nicer house, sharper clothes, a better physique—and it tends to make us feel bad about ourselves because they are doing better than we are.

To close that perceived gap, people try to elevate themselves in some way (known as “levelling up”) or they try to pull the object of their envy down (“levelling down”). The third option is to make the envied object less desirable—“I don’t need a nice car anyway”—so there is less reason for envy to exist.

For our study, we used brands from athletic wear to airlines and conducted a series of experiments in which one participant had something the others desired. Then we looked at how the situation affected the participants’ perceptions of the brands.

In one experiment a group of study participants was told that someone would be randomly chosen to receive a pair of NHL hockey tickets and then watched on as the recipient celebrated their win. In another a group of marketing students was told that Lululemon was offering a coveted internship and that a select few of them would receive an “inside track” interview, setting them ahead of the rest. In both experiments, participants also filled out questionnaires about their own self-esteem and about their feelings about the brand.

In a third study 171 participants watched videos of people who won flight upgrades, but we added a wrinkle: the participants also received a self-esteem boost.

Through all three experiments we found that people who have a high sense of self-esteem maintain or even increase their desire for the brand, even if they can’t necessarily attain it.

But for those with lower self-esteem, seeing others land that desired brand not only makes them feel worse about themselves but they also feel unworthy of the brand. That feeling, in turn, threatened their egos, and to make themselves feel better they reject the brand.

In other words, when marketers use envy to sell products, instead of securing sales they can end up fostering potentially damaging brand relationships: especially among consumers with low self-esteem.

Interestingly, when consumers with low self-worth are given a self-esteem boost before evaluating the brand, they tend to see it favourably—likely because the boost mitigates the self-esteem threat that the envy causes—so in theory marketers could develop strategies to limit envy’s negative effects.

Understanding the customers’ variations
Still, it’s an area where marketers must tread very carefully. Our research shows that envy can be an effective marketing tool for companies targeting consumers with higher self-esteem. Brands that want to broaden their appeal, however, should carefully consider the self-worth of the individuals they’re targeting, or risk alienating them.

Before pursuing any type of campaign or branding, marketers should not only understand their customers; they must understand the variation in their customers. It may seem fun and clever to label a perfume or computer “envy” because it’s an interesting emotion that we all feel, and it can be successful as a motivating force. But advertisers also need to be cognizant of its limits and determine exactly where those borders are.

In business it’s always dangerous to paint things with the same broad brush. Good marketers know there are nuances, and people are distinct: and having a true understanding of their existing customers as well as their potential customers always leads to greater success.

How do consumers feel about themselves? It turns out it’s a good question to ask, because it can dictate their reactions in the marketplace: and either leave them green with envy or tasting sour grapes.

Darren Dahl is senior associate dean, faculty, director of the Robert H. Lee Graduate School and BC Innovation Council professor, Marketing and Behavioural Science division at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business.

1 Kirk Kristofferson, Cait Lamberton, Darren W. Dahl, “Can Brands Squeeze Wine from Sour Grapes? The Importance of Self-Esteem in Understanding Envy’s Effects”, Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, March 19, 2018.

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