Consumer Narcissism Is on the Rise

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A rise in narcissism among consumers is reason for retailers and manufacturers to put more effort into product customization, according to marketing and psychology researchers from Washington State University, the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and Ruhr University-­Bochum in Germany.

Writing in The Journal of Retailing, the researchers studied the automobile industry to determine how narcissism can be harnessed to improve marketing strategies. Through a series of four studies that aimed to relate narcissism with the desire to purchase unique products, they found, for example, that car buyers with higher degrees of narcissism were more apt to self-design more unique cars. They also found that firms can induce a temporary narcissistic state of mind with certain marketing techniques. For example, an ad saying "You impress. Like the new Audi A6" appealed to customers’ desire for admiration.

With previous studies indicating that narcissism increased 30 percent between 1979 and 2006—and is likely to continue increasing due to outlets such as social media—this latest research indicates that offering a variety of customizable products in markets where narcissists are likely to be found can be fruitful. Additionally, it has been shown that narcissists are more appreciative of customizable products and thus willing to pay more for them.

"A narcissist wants to express to the outside world their superiority, their uniqueness.… Their view of themselves is quite high, and they want everyone else to know it," says David Sprott, a marketing professor at Washington State University and a coauthor of the study. "One way to stand out is to produce a product that is unique or different compared to everyone else.

"The vast majority of consumers that shop with these mass customization systems really don't use the full individualization at the high end of the system," Sprott continues. "If you take a look at the number of colors that are chosen, the vast majority of people pick the same standard bucket of colors—white, black, maybe gold—but for the people buying the purple cars and the yellow cars, really there's not that many people doing it."

Overall, the studies indicated that consumers with higher levels of narcissism—as well as those in an induced state of narcissism—chose more unique and expensive cars. The researchers believe that product offerings should include both standard and unique options, and that companies can also benefit by listing percentage shares that show the frequency with which an option is chosen as a means of conveying product uniqueness.

"Our argument is that by producing a product that's more unique, it can help refine what the brand image is, [and] it can help open up new markets, especially if you add on basic innovation to get the early adopters in," Sprott says.

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