Science Shows How Brands Rub Off on Self-Perception

A new study shows that brands can be their own reality-distortion field, inspiring world-beating confidence.

Science Shows How Brands Rub Off on Self-Perception

What’s your emotional level of attachment to your favorite brand? Does associating yourself with a brand make you smarter? Sexier? More confident? Brand strategists have always thought brands can influence people’s perceptions of themselves. Now research is confirming that the intangible relationship a brand may have with its consumer is the most compelling. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research reveals that associating yourself with a particular brand that has a strong personality could reflect on how you perceive yourself.


In the study, entitled Got to Get You Into My Life: Do
Brand Personalities Rub Off on Consumers?
, women were given bags to carry around a mall for an hour. Some carried Victoria’s Secret bags, others carried plain pink shopping bags. Women who were given Victoria’s Secret bags revealed that they felt more feminine, glamorous, and good-looking than those with the pink shopping bags — just by carrying the bag.

Could a Victoria’s Secret bag make a woman feel sexy or more confident?

Another study gave MBA students a pen with an MIT logo to use to take notes for six weeks. Those students with the MIT logo pen felt like they were smarter and better leaders, even after they’d been told they did poorly on a math test.

One of the most fascinating parts of the study, according to the authors Ji Kyung Park and Deborah Roedder John, was that the people who were most affected by the study seemed to see brands as the path to self-improvement. These people were less sure about their own personal worth and hoped to signal their positive qualities to other people through brand-association. People who were not as affected by brand-name associations believed that they could change for the better themselves.


This studies play upon two types of theories about intelligence, as defined by psychologist Carol Dweck and others some years ago. “Entity theorists” treat intelligence as fixed and stable. They have a high desire to prove themselves to others; to be seen as smart and avoid looking unintelligent. “Incremental theorists” treat intelligence as malleable, fluid, and changeable. They see satisfaction coming from the process of learning and often see opportunities to get better. They do not focus on what the outcome will say about them, but what they can attain from taking part in the venture. Ironically, it was the entity theorists, or those who had certain fixed beliefs about their personality, who experienced the greatest reactions to the brands. Self-perception was improved with the help of outside means — a brand.

The Tiffany blue box has been associated with the good life

As brand strategists and practitioners, we’ve always believed that brands have emotive power if developed correctly. We look for the compelling truths of a brand in the discovery phase. Those truths or “pillars” are attributes that are present with the brand at all times. If conveyed in the right way, and manifested through the brand’s products and communication, the pillars can have immediate meaning and value to the consumer, which drives preference. It seems this could be coming from the brand’s ability to change our perception about ourselves.

Tiffany. Apple. Harley Davidson. Levi’s. These brands have iconic and immediate perception attached to them. All have created a visual and verbal set of constructs; a recognizable mark or product or symbol — think about the Tiffany box/bag — that convey their attributes emotionally as well as physically to their targets.


It’s sometimes hard to admit, but we’ve all imagined ourselves owning a particular car, suit, or watch that appeals to our senses, but we can’t exactly explain why. According to this research, this feeling could be the brand at work, redefining our own perceptions with what we believe to be true about that brand — and ourselves.

[Photograph of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, by Thomas Hawk]

About the author

Jamey Boiter is a nationally recognized brand strategist and practitioner. As BOLTgroup’s brand principal, he oversees all brand innovation and graphic design teams.