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Want to feel sexy? It's all in the bag, study finds

If you feel a little snobbier when behind the wheel of a BMW, or a little more outdoorsy when you slip on a North Face fleece, or a little hipper when using your new MacBook Air -- you're not alone, as they say. It's widely known that a product's brand image has a profound impact on our own self-image, but a new study finds that we may actually change our personality to match the "personality" of a brand.

"For example, if I want to convey an image of being adventurous, I might buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle or wear casual clothes from outdoor adventure companies such as REI," says Deborah Roedder John, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota and one of the authors of the study published in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. (You can find the report here, but a subscription is required.)

John continues, "But our prior research didn't delve into the question of whether consumers actually 'took on' the personalities of these brands they selected to boost their self-images: If you buy a Harley motorcycle, will you really see yourself as more adventurous?"

For one part of the study, the University of Minnesota researchers recruited about 100 volunteers -- all women, all between the ages of 18 to 34 -- at a mall, asking each of them to carry around for an hour the shopping bag of their choice: a bag from Victoria's Secret, Old Navy or Limited Too. Every participant chose the pink Victoria's Secret bag. When they came back from an hour of shopping, Victoria's Secret shopping bag in tow, they were asked to take a survey rating how they felt about themselves. The researchers found that the "personality" of Victoria's Secret -- sexy, glamorous, feminine -- actually did make some of their volunteers feel sexier, more glamorous and more feminine. (No word on whether carrying around a bag from Victoria's Secret made some feel a little like a 15-year-old.)

The same researchers did a similar experiment instructing participants to write with a pen with an MIT logo on it, with similar results -- some of the participants really did feel smarter when using their MIT pen. (The researchers conducted four separate studies, involving more than 200 participants in all, John says.)

The trick is this: If you're the kind of person who thinks a particular brand will make you more feminine, or more glamorous, then it will. That's called "entity theory," and it means you're the kind of person who seeks out products to make you feel a certain way about yourself. But if you're not the kind of person who feels that way about the brands you buy, well -- then you won't feel much of anything after using a particular brand. That one's called "incremental theory." You might think you're staunchly one way or the other, but these researchers primed their participants to identify with one of those theories by having them read an article promoting it.

The study results shed light on how those "entity theorists" and "incremental theorists" experience brands differently. An entity theorist is -- well, let's just let the experts explain it, as John and her colleague Ji Kyung Park write in the report:

Individuals who endorse entity theory view their personal qualities as something they cannot improve through their own direct efforts; instead, they seek out opportunities (such as brand experiences) to signal their positive qualities to the self or others. Conversely, individuals who endorse incremental theory view their personal qualities as something they can enhance through their own efforts at selfimprovement, reducing the value of signaling opportunities through brands.

"For consumers, our study could help them understand how brands really affect them -- just carrying a shopping bag with the Victoria's Secret name makes you feel more glamorous, feminine, and good-looking (at least for a good deal of people we call 'entity theorists')," John says. "So, you don't really need to buy and use the brand--just have some association with it. Maybe this is a money-saving tip for anyone strapped for money during these recessionary times?"

What do you think? How does the stuff you buy influence the way you feel about yourself -- or does it at all?

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