Why Generic Products Can Make You Feel Bad About Yourself

People often buy brand-name products over their generic alternatives for fairly obvious reasons. They may trust high-end brands more, or feel that using them conveys to others a sense of their own taste, coolness, or affluence.

But the influence of brands and logos on our behavior goes well beyond the moment of product choice—when actually using the product, we continue to feel the brand's influence. For instance, studies show that people give more creative solutions to a problem after seeing an Apple logo than an IBM logo. Other studies have shown that wearing counterfeit versions of brand-name products makes people feel less authentic, and actually increases their likelihood of both behaving dishonesty and distrusting others.

A new paper from researchers at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan offers yet another surprising demonstration of the power of branding: Using a generic product, rather than a brand-name one, can actually undermine the user's sense of self-worth.

In one study, college seniors seated at a desktop Mac were randomly assigned to use either a generic keyboard and mouse or brand-name Apple accessories. They used the computer to fill out an online resume, and after finishing were asked to estimate their future monthly earnings. Those who used generic accessories said that they would earn, on average, 10% less than those who used the brand-name accessories.

In another study, men were given a cell phone so that they could call a woman they had just been introduced to and ask her on a date. When they tried to use the phone, they discovered that the battery had died, and were given either a brand-name replacement or a cheaper generic cell phone battery. Men who used the generic battery later rated themselves as significantly less attractive than brand-name battery users, and felt that they had a lower sense of self-worth.

Across both studies, participants had no idea whatsoever that their own self-evaluations were being affected by the products they were using.

Most of us assume that this sort of thing stops in childhood—when being given the less expensive version of the toy, sneakers, or designer jeans you really wanted is a source of embarrassment as well as disappointment. These studies suggest that as adults, we continue to unconsciously see our own worth to some extent as a function of whether or not we buy, or are given, the "good version" of the products we use.

There is, however, one important exception: Some people (and I am thinking of my husband here) feel genuinely smart and savvy when using generics instead of brand-names. They believe that they are getting a product of equal worth for less money, and for them that choice is a source of pride—of greater self-esteem.

So it may be that only when we have to use generic products—when others choose them for us, or when we feel we can't or shouldn't pay for the brand-name alternative—that using the "lesser" product makes us feel like a lesser person.

Heidi's new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals is available wherever books are sold. Follow Heidi on Twitter @hghalvorson.

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