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For decades, marketers have used envy to sell, attempting to cash in on consumers’ desire to want what others have. But does it actually work?


According to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business, employing envy can boost brands but it can also completely backfire — and it depends on a consumer’s self-esteem. The study is the first to demonstrate the relationship between envy, self-esteem and consumer behaviour.

“Marketers often try to take advantage of consumers’ tendency to compare themselves to others. Does their neighbour’s lawn look healthier than theirs? Is their co-worker’s car more luxurious?” said study co-author Darren Dahl, a professor of Marketing and Behavioural Science at UBC Sauder. “While this strategy can sometimes work, our findings suggest that when marketers use envy to sell products, they could also end up with a bunch of sour grapes instead of sales, and potentially damage brand relationships.”

Looking at brands such as Lululemon, the NHL and the Star Alliance airline network, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in which one participant had something the others desired. They then looked at how the situation affected the participants’ perceptions of the brands.

Researchers found that people who reported a high sense of self-worth tended to want the envied brand and stayed motivated to attain it. But for people who reported lower self-esteem, seeing another person with a desired brand made them feel worse about themselves and unworthy of the brand. That feeling threatened their ego, so in order to make themselves feel better, they rejected the brand.

Dahl said stirring envy could still be an effective marketing tool, especially for companies targeting consumers with higher self-esteem. But brands that want to expand their reach and broaden their appeal would be wise to carefully consider the self-worth of the individuals they’re targeting, or risk alienating them.

The study also found that when consumers with low self-worth were given a self-esteem boost before evaluating the brand, they were far more likely to see it favourably.

According to Dahl, the research is valuable for businesses as well as consumers, who can better understand how marketers are manipulating their emotions to get them to buy products.

“Consumers should be aware of their emotions, and how companies are using envy to elicit those emotions. When they have high self-esteem, they’re going to be excited about the product, and when they have low self-esteem, it can turn them off,” he said. “Either way, it’s empowering to know.”

Dahl co-authored the study with Kirk Kristofferson of Western University and Cait Lamberton of the University of Pittsburgh. The study, “Can Brands Squeeze Wine from Sour Grapes? The Importance of Self-Esteem in Understanding Envy’s Effects,” was recently published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.