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Owned: When Consumers Feel a Brand Is “Theirs”

September 17, 2018

The "Share a Coke" campaign stimulated customers' psychological ownership and increased sales for Coca-Cola.

In an op-ed published today in Harvard Business Review, Assistant Professor of Marketing Colleen P. Kirk, D.P.S. advises businesses to promote and recognize psychological bonds consumers feel toward their offerings. “Companies that encourage psychological ownership can entice customers to buy more products, at higher prices, and even to willingly promote those products among their friends,” she says. Then, drawing on original research she conducted with colleagues, Kirk warns, “But if businesses disrespect this feeling, sales can suffer.”

Consumers who feel ownership are more committed to buying and promoting the brand’s products—very desirable customers indeed. “To build psychological ownership, companies must utilize at least one of three factors: control, investment of self, and intimate knowledge,” says Kirk.

The flipside of feeling psychological ownership of a brand, however, is that devoted consumers feel that it belongs to them, and they have strong opinions. Kirk cites Star Wars die-hards who are hoping to re-make The Last Jedi to make it meet their standards.

Kirk also shares examples of companies, including Tropicana, who backtracked on marketing strategies that offended their most passionate customers. After redesigning a beloved logo featuring a straw stuck into an orange, Tropicana saw sales drop. “The redesign turned off a generation of customers who had grown up with the image and felt ownership over the original design.”

Kirk includes ideas for companies to put psychological ownership to use in their marketing. For example, even the simple act of moving images of a product across a touch screen foments feelings of ownership, thus potentially increasing sales.

The op-ed concludes, “Companies legally own their brand, but their most devoted customers may own it psychologically. Businesses should cultivate this feeling—and then respect it.”

This op-ed is part of an NYIT thought-leadership campaign designed to help generate awareness and build reputation for the university on topics of national relevance. Read more op-eds by NYIT experts.