Sony hails from Japan, Mercedes from Germany, Toblerone from Switzerland, and that is well known to most people who buy these brands. But in what way would they feel differently about the items if they remained exactly the same, but the chocolate came from Japan, the gaming console from Germany and the car from Switzerland – or even Romania? And what if Apple fanboys were not notoriously reputed to be creative hipsters, but dull accountants?
This is the type of question explored by Arnd Florack, a social psychologist of the University of Vienna, with the support of the Austrian Science Fund FWF. With his research partner, the economist Adamantios Diamantopoulos, Florack and his team investigated how stereotypes influence the behavior of consumers.
Brand users influence stereotypes
Companies place great emphasis on developing a brand identity, and we often perceive well-known brands as if they were people with particular characteristics. Something that is less familiar is the impact of stereotypes we associate with the users of branded products. Identity and group affiliation do, however, have a major influence on people’s consumption behavior. This is not to say that we only respond to ideals that we aspire to and that the brands like to make use of. Very attractive people, as they are often seen in advertisements, are not automatically perceived as positive. Psychologist Arnd Florack learned, for instance, that many people tend to view slim individuals as less kind and approachable. He found out that people who are more “normal” are often better ambassadors for brands, both in everyday life and in advertising.
“What counts is to recognize myself not in a stereotype, but in someone who comes across as approachable and competent to me,” Florack explains. “Different body shapes may appeal to one group but scare off another group or leave them indifferent.” This is why Florack finds the current trend toward more diversity in advertising interesting and thinks it is worthwhile for behavioral researchers to continue to monitor it.
Stereotypes as a decision-making aid
Stereotypes are socially communicated attributions of characteristics: even if you don't agree, you know that Germans are considered to be efficient, Italians as warm, or the French as romantic. It does not matter if the Germans you know personally are all extremely laid-back – these attributions are enshrined in the culture.
“Stereotypes are neither exclusively positive nor negative,” explains Florack. Social psychology describes them in terms of warmth and competence. Germany, for instance, stereotypically comes across as very competent, but also as aloof and distant, and the researchers learned that the picture is similar for many German brands.
This type of perception can be good or bad for a brand: “Picture yourself needing to ask someone for directions, and there's a wealthy-looking man in an immaculate suit and a friendly-looking guy in wrinkled jeans and a T-shirt – who do you approach?” says Florack to describe how stereotypes translate into quick decisions – and this also applies to buying decisions.
A wide range of negative
For their studies, Florack and Diamantopoulos employed both interviews and methods such as eye-tracking in order to capture subconscious attention-grabbing factors. They varied images of users of certain brands, making them more or less full-bodied, or changed the country of origin of a product, pretending a product was manufactured in Romania or Switzerland. Their approach furnished some remarkable results. On the one hand, the characteristics attributed to branded products tended to agree strongly with attributions to their countries of origin. Like German nationals, (purportedly) German brands are often perceived as rather competent but lacking warmth.
On the other hand, they found positive stereotypes to be much less significant for a purchase decision than negative ones, which were given disproportionately more attention by the respondents. A positive perception is more like a standard expectation when selecting products that helps one decide whether a product is even worth considering. Negative attributions, on the other hand, can be an immediate knock-out criterion. Particularly positive attributions only become important when someone thinks long and hard about buying something and weighs up the pros and cons.
So what are the conclusions companies can draw from these scientific studies? While positive stereotypes rarely help to distinguish oneself from the competition, one should make every effort to stay clear of negative stereotypes. And a lot can be gained by attracting the right users, who have a positive impact on a brand image in everyday life.
Arnd Florack studied psychology in Münster and Trier. He obtained his professorial qualifications at the University of Basel and taught at the Zeppelin University on Lake Constance. Florack has been teaching and researching at the University of Vienna for more than ten years. He is particularly interested in methods that can make unconscious attitudes measurable in areas such as consumer behavior or cultural differences. The research project “Navigating Brand Preferences through Consumers’ Stereotypes” (2018–2022) received EUR 342,000 in funding from the Austrian Science Fund FWF.
Florack A., Halkias G., Diamantopoulos A., Palcu J.: Eyes Wide Shut? Understanding and Managing Consumers’ Visual Processing of Country‐of‐Origin Cues, in: British Journal of Management 33 (3), 2022
Gidaković P., Szőcs I., Diamantopoulos A., Florack A. et al.: The Interplay of Brand, Brand Origin and Brand User Stereotypes in Forming Value Perceptions, in: British Journal of Management, 33 (4), 2022
Florack A. et al.: The Differentiation Principle: Why Consumers Often Neglect Positive Attributes of Novel Food Products, in: Journal of Consumer Psychology 31 (4), 2021
Florack A., Egger M., Hübner R.: When products compete for consumer attention: how selective attention affects preferences, in: Journal of Business Research, 111, 2020