The elusive nature of 'cool'

The quest for cool is never-ending. New research provides insight into how consumers use products to signal membership in social groups, but swiftly abandon those same products when the original message is diluted as other groups co-opt the trend.

by Knowledge@Wharton
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

There is a fine line between cool and not-so-cool. In a paper titled, 'Where Consumers Diverge from Others: Identity Signaling and Product Domains', Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger and Chip Heath, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, explore the power of social identity in the demand for consumer products.

According to Berger, much of the existing research has focused on the drive for conformity among consumers. "But the process is more complicated than that," he says. "People want to do something similar to other members of their in-group but may diverge from that choice when outsiders - i.e., members of other social groups - start poaching that taste."

The most important finding in Berger and Heath's research is that consumer choices are generated through a blend of conformity and divergence from others' choices. The authors suggest their identity-signalling approach is different from existing notions of anti-conformity because it is rooted in the initial urge to converge within a social group.

People make inferences about others based on the products they buy, and when lots of similar people adopt a product, it can gain meaning as a social signal, says Berger. If lots of tough people ride Harley motorcycles, for example, then driving one may come to signal a rugged identity.

But when a certain taste or product is adopted by people beyond the original group, it loses its ability to signal desired characteristics, according to the research, which is based on experiments conducted over the Internet and among undergraduates. If accountants start driving Harleys, then the meaning of driving one may shift, and the bike may come to signal undesired characteristics (e.g. wannabe tough guys).

Berger points out that as new information delivery systems, including the Internet, make the signaling process faster, product trends can explode across mass markets more rapidly than ever before. At the same time, the enormity of those markets can also turn off the original customer base quickly.

In the course of their research, the authors found that certain categories - particularly clothes, music and products linked to social life - are more important in identity signaling than others. The effect of social identity on more functional products, such as bicycle lights or pens, was not as strong.

For example, the researchers studied student reactions to a range of product categories. The students were told the products were owned by 65%, 25% or 10% of the other students. The students said they would be most likely to diverge from others in their choice of CD (67%), followed by favorite musical artist and musical genre.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, dish soap was the product that showed the least divergence (6%), followed by stereos, toothpaste and tools. The research shows a complicated relationship between the desire not just to conform or be different, but also to signal desired identities, Berger notes.

Teenagers certainly want to look different than their parents, but within the world of teenagers, there are clearly defined social groups. "The jocks want to be different from the geeks." While many teens may shop at Abercrombie & Fitch, he says, different social groups often buy different styles.

The jocks might wear t-shirts, for example, while the geeks wear button-down shirts. Each group is doing something different to send desired signals. "Conformity is one of the most basic principles underlying social behavior, yet while individuals want to be both similar and different, little research explains where conformity versus divergence will occur," the authors write.

From Cool to Passé: Identity Signaling and Product Domains
Jonah Berger and Chip Heath
August 2007

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