Imagine two advertisements for a personal digital assistant (PDA) brand. The first highlights “self-focused” or individualist product benefits, such as enhanced productivity and organization. The second focuses instead on “collectivist” or group benefits, such as connecting with friends and family. Under which circumstances would each of these advertisements be more persuasive? Nidhi Agrawal (Marketing) and Durairaj Maheswaran (New York University; Kellogg marketing Ph.D.) addressed this question by investigating the role of culture and brand commitment in advertising effectiveness.
Prior research on self-construal, the extent to which individuals view themselves as an individuated entity or in relation to others, has shown that the independent self is the more prevalent view in Western cultures. On the other hand, the collectivist or interdependent self tends to dominate in Eastern cultures. Therefore, one might assume that advertising claims consistent with one’s chronic self-construal would be more effective. Indeed, some research has found that individualist appeals are more persuasive in Western cultures and collectivist claims are more persuasive in Eastern cultures. Researchers have devoted little attention to personality or psychological processes that distinguish highly committed consumers from those who lack brand commitment.The complication is that one’s self-construal can change within a specific context or for a certain time, a condition known as latent self-construal. For example, even an American who chronically expresses an independent self-construal might temporarily adopt an interdependent self-construal based on specific circumstances or external factors. Researchers have shown that advertising messages compatible with either the chronic or latent self can be effective. Agrawal and Maheswaran set out to identify the conditions under which each of these self-construals—chronic or latent—exhibits greater influence in the evaluation of an advertising message.
Brand Commitment and Self
The researchers hypothesized that individuals with strong prior attitudes favoring a brand (high brand commitment) would rely on their chronic self-construal when evaluating an advertising message. They argued that consumers who are loyal or attached to a particular brand associate their chronic self with the brand and would be more likely to discount or override a latent self construal. In contrast, consumers with low brand commitment would be more swayed by contextual cues and influenced by the activation of their latent self-construal. Revisiting the PDA example, Agrawal and Maheswaran predicted that consumers who were already highly committed to the specific PDA brand would rely on their chronic self-construal when evaluating an advertising message, even if their latent self had been temporarily activated. However, consumers with low brand commitment were expected to evaluate an advertisement more favorably when consistent with the latent self-construal that had recently been activated.
To test their hypotheses, Agrawal and Maheswaran conducted separate experiments involving undergraduate students from Nepal and the United States, where the chronic interdependent self and the chronic independent self prevail respectively. Under the guise of a market research study, participants were given information about a brand of PDA and instructed to record their thoughts about the product on an audiotape. High commitment was kindled for a randomly selected subset of subjects by asking if their comments and photographs could be used as part of an advertising campaign for the PDA brand. A temporary self-construal that was either consistent or inconsistent with the chronic self was subsequently induced through a pronoun-circling task (Brewer and Gardner 1996). This task required half the participants to read a passage and circle any self-oriented pronouns (e.g., I, me, and myself), thereby activating the independent self. The remaining participants were told to circle other-oriented pronouns (e.g., we, us, and our), a tactic that had been reliably shown to activate the interdependent self. Following this manipulation, participants viewed one of the two PDA advertisements described at the onset of this research summary, which stressed either the individualist or collectivist product benefits of the PDA brand. Finally, participants were asked to evaluate the brand on various dimensions.
Individualist versus Collectivist Advertising Messages
Results provided support for Agrawal and Maheswaran’s hypotheses. As predicted, participants who were highly committed to the PDA brand evaluated the product more favorably when the advertising message matched their chronic self-construal. Participants with low commitment to the PDA instead evaluated the brand more favorably when the advertising message corresponded to their latent self-construal. More specifically, highly committed Nepalese participants rated the PDA more favorably if the advertisement focused on collectivist benefits. Nepalese with low brand commitment rated the PDA more favorably if the advertisement focused on individualist benefits as long as their latent independent self-construal had been induced. Highly committed American participants, with chronic independent self-construals, rated the PDA more highly after viewing an individualist advertising appeal. However, low-commitment Americans whose interdependent self-construal had been activated rated the PDA more favorably after viewing a collectivist advertising appeal. Across experiments, the self-construal manipulation (the pronoun-circling task) did not appear to have an effect on subsequent judgments for either American or Nepalese participants who were highly committed to the PDA brand. As Agrawal explained, “When consumers are already committed to a brand, matching cultural appeal seems to be most persuasive. On the other hand, when attracting new consumers, corporations can use divergent appeals and introduce novel concepts.”
In addition to advancing knowledge on chronic and latent self-construals, these results provide noteworthy contributions to the existing literature on brand commitment. Prior research on brand loyalty and commitment primarily focused on how committed consumers dispute advertising claims that attempt to undermine their preferred brand. To date, however, researchers have devoted little attention to personality or psychological processes that distinguish highly committed consumers from those who lack brand commitment. Through their research, Agrawal and Maheswaran identified how high-commitment and low-commitment consumers activate culturally consistent constructs differently, which in turn affects which advertising messages are most persuasive.
Brewer, Marilynn and Wendi Gardner (1995), “Who is This ‘We’? Levels of Collective Identity and Self Representations,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71 (July), 83-93.