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How Marketers Can Leverage on the Power of Comparison

CUHK research using Chinese data illustrates that consumers prefer products that elicit competence when comparing to peers who are better off, and vice versa


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Consumers are highly social animals and what they purchase can often be influenced by their social needs. For example, when people want to appear to be richer than their friends are, they may choose to buy luxurious goods that symbolise wealth. This constant comparison between one’s own life and the lives of others, or “keeping up with the Joneses”, is known as social comparison. For companies, social comparison can be highly useful in stimulating consumption. Using data form China, a recent research study finds whether consumers choose to purchase products that make them appear to be more confident or friendly depends on how they compare themselves with others.

The study “To be Respected or Liked: The Influence of Social Comparisons on Consumer Preference for Competence- Versus Warmth-oriented Products” was co-written by Hao Shen, Professor of Marketing at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, Prof. Xiaoying Zheng at Sun Yat-Sen University and Prof. Jing Xu at Peking University. Leaning on existing research on social comparison and consumers’ product choices, this research study explores how social comparison leads consumers to choose products that either exude confidence or convey friendliness.

People identify feelings and emotions with objects. Most of the things that people use or wear send out messages that reveal certain aspects of personality. For example, a fresh graduate would likely wear a business suit in job interviews to convey an image of confidence and competence to interviewers. However, this same person is unlikely to wear the same clothes when making friends at parties. Whether people want to appear confident or friendly can be determined by occasion. However, the study points out that whether people choose to be confident or friendly can be affected by how they compare themselves to other people.

“Social comparison can give people joy or bring them pain. On one hand, we want to show people that we are the best. But, on the other hand, we want people to like us and won’t find us intimidating,” Prof. Shen says. “Our need to appear either competent or friendly is constantly changing, depending on whether we feel we are better or worse off than others.”

Intertwining Needs 

The researchers theorised that when people compare themselves with others who are better off than they are, it can trigger a threat to their self-esteem, leading them to make purchase decisions that can help them feel better about themselves. On the other hand, when people compare themselves with people who are worse off than they are, it may lead them to feel bad about showing off their superiority and worry about whether this would cause distress in their relationship. When this happens, they are more likely to choose products that can convey a sense of friendliness.


To test this, the researchers conducted six experiments involving hundreds of undergraduate students from a university in China. In these experiments, the students were generally first asked to recall an experience of feeling better or worse off than others. Then, they were told to choose between either advertisements or products that either placed importance on competence or emphasised warmth.

As theorised, the participants who made comparisons to those they considered to be socially superior preferred products that can help them regain self-confidence. Those who compared themselves with people they considered to be doing less well-off socially tended to express preferences for products that convey geniality.

“Humans are beautiful yet complex creatures emotionally. We care about our own status and strive to outshine others, but at the same time we also care about how others feel and generally want to get along,” says Prof. Shen. “For marketing professionals, it’s the struggle between these two forces that can lead to purchase decisions going one way or the other.”

Exceptions to the Rule 

According to the study, there are at least two exceptions to this. First, for people who excel in social skills and interpersonal relationships, even when they feel superior to other people, it would not lead them to worry about how it would affect their relationships. In terms of product choice, these people would continue to choose items that convey friendliness to match their outgoing and amicable self-image. In contrast, people who are less socially capable would not choose products that boost self-confidence. Instead, they prefer products that exude warmth and kindness to support their need for relationships.

Secondly, people tend to care more about the comparisons made with people within their social groups than with those who are outside. These include people they have close contact with, such as friends, family members, classmates, colleagues. The study results confirm that the social distress triggered by outperforming others is stronger when people compare themselves with others within their social circles.


Specifically, one part of the study found that 56 percent of the participants expressed a preference for products that convey friendliness after being given feedback on an IQ test that indicated they scored better than someone else within their social circle. However, when they were told they scored better than someone outside of their social circle, this preference for warmth-related products fell to 30 percent. Interestingly, when study participants were told they scored lower than someone else in the test, their preference for competence-boosting products were not affected regardless of social circle.

Triggering the Right Emotions

The researchers suggest that marketers can make use of these findings in their targeting strategies. For example, when promoting products that convey professionalism and capability, they may consider slogans or catch phrases along the lines of “Sick of being worse than your colleagues?” or “Do you really want to appear to be the weakest link?” Statements like these may stimulate target customers to make upward social comparisons and increase the chances they would seek to purchase products that replenish self-esteem.


“They say comparison kills creativity,” says Prof. Shen. “It’s true that people can feel discouraged once they start comparing themselves with others, but for companies, it represents an excellent opportunity to fine-tune their product marketing depending on whether their products have confidence-boosting or warmth-exuding attributes.”

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About the Researcher

Prof. Hao Shen is Professor of Marketing at CUHK. He received his PhD in Marketing from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Prof. Shen’s research interests include: the effect of mood, the effect of procedural knowledge, culture, and sensory marketing. Prof. Shen’s research has been published in journals such as Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Journal of Experimental Psychology (applied), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He won young contributor award from Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2008, young researcher award from CUHK in 2011, and was named as Marketing Science Institute 2015 young scholar. Prof. Shen is on the Editorial Review Boards of Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, and Journal of Retailing.







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