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Competing for Consumer Identity: Limits to Self-Expression and the Perils of Lifestyle Branding

Associate Professor Alexander Chernev, Northwestern University

21st Apr 2011  10:00 am - 11:30 am Room 397, Merewether Building

Lifestyle positioning has become an increasingly common approach among managers, especially in commodity categories in which functional differences are hard to maintain. In addition to the traditional lifestyle brands, such as Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Martha Stewart, a number of performance-oriented brands including Gillette, Dove, Montblanc, Oakley, and Quicksilver have transitioned their focus to consumer lifestyles. Many managers view this lifestyle positioning as a way to break free of the cutthroat competition within a category by connecting with consumers on a more personal level.

We argue, however, that the open vistas of lifestyle branding are an illusion: functional brands may be trading in-category competition for even fiercer cross-category competition, competing not only with their direct rivals but also with brands from unrelated categories. Moreover, competition for consumer identity is not limited to lifestyle brands; it includes virtually any activity with a self-expressive component, such as ordering one's favourite coffee, listening to one's favourite band, and social networking. This argument is based on the idea that because consumers' need for self-expression is finite and, like most needs, can be satiated when consumers are exposed to multiple self-expressive brands, the scope of the competitive landscape for lifestyle brands extends far beyond specific categories and brands. This implies that by repositioning itself as a lifestyle brand, Gillette is entering into direct competition with other lifestyle brands including Ralph Lauren, Starbucks, and Facebook for a share of a consumer's identity.

Our theory is supported by data from five empirical studies, which show that consumers' need for self-expression is finite and can be satiated by a variety of means - including brands from unrelated categories; non-brand means of self-expression including books, TV shows, and sports teams; as well as self-expressive behavioural acts such as product customization. The data from these experiments provide converging evidence that by switching from functional to lifestyle positioning, brands might be setting themselves up for a much broader, and often fiercer, competition for a share of consumer identity.