Do you dislike evangelists? You know the old-fashioned ones that stood on street corners shouting at passers by that it was time to repent or be forever cast into the fires of hell by an almighty and merciful god. Or perhaps their modern day equivalents that preach the virtues of the latest management craze or self-improvement fad coming out of the USA (Net Promoter Score advocates certainly spring to my mind). In a somewhat similar vein, how often have you heard brand strategy evangelists ask, “If you were a car, what brand of car would you be?” If I ever hear that same question again…

And yet, I concede some car brands might well communicate something about their owners. Be honest, did you ever want to own a Porsche 911? I certainly never did, not for one fleeting moment – they always seemed to proclaim “Tosser” or scream mid-life crisis way too loud for me to even contemplate buying one. And it’s not at all about any concern over the ostentatious display of wealth or a denial that I am, ahem, “mid life” – I’d be (very) happy driving around in an RS6 or an XK150 Jag. No, it’s all about self-concept and identity. And while I’m sure some of my colleagues think I actually am a bit of a tosser, it’s just that I don’t see myself that way! Hence the Audi on the drive.

There’s little doubt that modern consumers use brands to signal and validate their own self-concept and identity (with or without trying to attain any particular social status). It’s one of the reasons marketers accept the value of good branding, even if they can’t always demonstrate an ROI on every dollar spent. In an age of product commoditization, brand associations have become an increasingly important source of brand value. It’s as simple as that.

Or is it?

Most marketers assume a brand’s ability to serve as a means of self-expression is primarily a function of brand-specific factors, and that this does not change with the availability of other means of self-expression. Hence the relatively recent arrival of what’s been termed ‘Lifestyle brands’ like Apple, Rodd & Gunn, Ecostore and the Body Shop, and the repositioning of some mainstream performance-based brands (like Australia’s Driza-Bone, New Zealand’s Swanndri  and the USA’s Caterpillar brand) to become more lifestyle oriented.

The trouble is, researchers Chernev, Hamilton and Gal, writing in the Journal of Marketing (May 2011), have been able to demonstrate that a consumer’s need for self-expression is finite and they may experience satiation once those needs have been met. Importantly, they demonstrate that a consumer’s preference for a particular self-expressive brand can also be weakened due to satiation – not only by brands in the same product category, but by brands in unrelated categories, by non-brand items and by self-expressive behaviours.

Now that’s a bummer for many marketers as it really does fly in the face of conventional marketing wisdom – as Chernev, Hamilton and Gal comment, most of us have assumed a consumer’s brand preferences are not likely to be affected by their actions in unrelated product categories and or domains.

If you’re endeavouring to position your brand as a means of self-expression for your target audience in the belief that it will mean you’re far less likely to compete head-on with your traditional competitor brands, then your confidence may sadly be misplaced. Chernev, Hamilton and Gal suggest you might actually be exposing your brand to much broader, cross-category competition for a share of the consumer’s identity. Jumping out of the kettle into the fire so to speak.

So, what does that mean for brand owners and managers? As the authors note :

1. Lifestyle branding might trade fierce within-category functional competition for across-category symbolic competition, whereby all self-expressive brands could end up competing with one another.

2. Lifestyle brands might also end up competing with an increasing number of nonbrand self-expressive items, in addition to self-expressive behaviours and websites.

3. Exposure to a self-expressive brand can decrease the strength of a consumer’s preference for additional self-expressive brands.

4. Cumulative exposure to self-expressive brands over time could decrease consumers’ willingness to relate to additional self-expressive brands.

5. The long-term impact of identity saturation on brand preferences is likely to influence the degree to which a brand is internalized by consumers (a key source of a brand’s power and equity).

6. The satiation effect also suggests:

a) a lifestyle retail store might be better to be located away from stores that also remind consumers of other preferred lifestyle brands; and

b) engaging customers in self-expressive activities near the point of purchase may be counter-productive.

So there you have it. All was not quite as it seemed on the brand positioning front (well other than the bit about Porsche drivers I mean). Chernev, Hamilton and Gal’s work certainly rings a warning bell for those of us who help companies position retail brands in the minds of consumers, and for commercial property advisors who have traditionally relied on customer traffic as a key measure of a retail site’s attractiveness.