- Despite the digital revolution, there are still instances in which the physical products are preferred.
- When a product connects with social identity, new research finds a stronger preference for a physical product.
- This research also uncovers the the link between physical items and psychological ownership.
Not too long ago, having a large music collection meant dedicating a large portion of the living room to CDs and vinyl records. But now, nearly every song you could hope for lies just a few clicks away.
On the one hand, this is a massive upgrade. But vintage enthusiasts aside, are there instances in which we might actually prefer to have a physical version? Previous work has found that a key factor here may be a consumer’s social identity.
Consider music. Much of the time, what we listen to is just nice mood music. Maybe we like having something on while we do household chores, or we want something that pumps us up while we’re at the gym.
Other times, however, it’s not just about what we like listening to, but who we are. This is the difference between merely liking rap music and considering yourself a hip-hop aficionado.
For the latter, the music carries personal and symbolic value. When this is the case, are consumers more likely to prefer the real, physical product (e.g. records, CDs) as opposed to digital versions (e.g. streamable tracks on Spotify)?
To investigate this, a team of researchers led by Eugina Leung of Tulane University conducted a series of studies into the consumer psychology of identity-based consumption.
Studying Digital v. Physical Products
The first experiment examined how consumer preferences for physical vs. digital products—books, specifically—shifted depending on how the book’s material related to the consumer’s identity. The identity of “gaming” was specifically selected because gamers are observed to have a general appreciation for digital products, and therefore provided the opportunity to rule out a general dislike of dematerialization.
Nearly 600 participants were recruited to take part in the study and were shown a book that either corresponded to the gaming identity (e.g. The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia), or a book that did not. They then chose between receiving a physical or digital copy. The data supported the researchers' hypothesis: When the books corresponded to the gaming identity, gamers preferred physical copies.
The second study sought to better understand the mechanisms by which identity links consumers to the physical versions of their products. Specifically, the researchers hypothesized that physical products, unlike digital ones, provide more opportunities for psychological ownership.
To test this, they recruited 501 participants and randomly divided them into either the “strong identification” group or the control group. In the former, the participants were asked to write about an author they felt strongly about; in the latter, to write about an author they only knew about.
Both conditions were then given a scenario in which they could obtain a book by this author that they hadn’t read yet, and could get it in either the digital or physical form. Lastly, participants answered a short quiz about the book with respect to psychological ownership (e.g. “I feel like I own the book (e-book),”).
The results suggested that psychological ownership plays a strong role: Participants who wrote about a book they identified with were more likely to choose the physical version, and compared to the control group, also expressed greater feelings of psychological ownership as well.
Certain physical products are designed to be kept for a long time (e.g. a book) while others are more quickly discarded (e.g. a magazine). The third study examined the influence of transience on the effect of self-verification for physical products. The researchers predicted that more transient products don’t provide the same opportunity for self-verification, and therefore, consumer identity would play a less pronounced role in the preference for physical products.
More than 1,000 participants were recruited and, as in Study 2, randomly assigned to a "strong identity" condition or a control group. In addition, each of these groups was split into a "high transience" group, which was given the opportunity to choose between a physical newspaper and a digital newspaper article, and a "low transience group," which was given the same choice between physical and digital, but for a book.
The results of the study further supported the researchers' hypothesis: The preference for the physical product was much larger in the low transience group (e.g. the book), as opposed to the high transience group (e.g. the newspaper).
The Results and Implications for Buying Behavior
This research adds to a growing body of work demonstrating a close connection between one’s social identity and their consumer behavior. Physical products, unlike their digital counterparts, provide greater opportunities for psychological ownership. It's human nature to become attached to physical things. Thus, when the physical product aligns with the consumer’s identity, it provides greater symbolic value and self-verification.
Overall, these findings provide insight into the social factors which shape consumer psychology in the digital domain, which in turn, should inform the marketer’s approach. As more and more industries are disrupted by digital technology and are "dematerialized," this research suggests that the consumer’s social identity is a key variable to understand when trying to understand their preferences towards physical products.
In everyday life, the difference between merely liking hip-hop and considering oneself a hip-hop aficionado may be subtle. But in marketing psychology, this “nuance” is a crucial variable that can inform an entirely different approach.
Atasoy, O., & Morewedge, C. K. (2018). Digital goods are valued less than physical goods. Journal of consumer research, 44(6), 1343-1357.
Leung, E., Cito, M. C., Paolacci, G., & Puntoni, S. (2021) Preference for Material Products in Identity‐Based Consumption. Journal of Consumer Psychology.