Power Distance Beliefs Predict Brand Choices
Updated: Apr 30
Jessie Wang validates why power distance beliefs determine consumers’ preferences for mass or niche brands.
Does Clintons' choice of a mass pizza brand follow from their acceptance for power distance? : ) PC: Reuters/CORBIS
The more one accepts and expects a power distance in social endeavors, the more one prefers mass brands and vice versa. This is the phenomenon that Jessie Wang, Ashok Lalwani, and Devon DelVecchio tested and confirmed through a series of lab and field experiments. Their paper entitled "The Impact of Power Distance Beliefs on Consumers Brand Preferences" appeared in IJRM’s September 2022 issue (volume 39). In this interview, the first author Jessie unfolds more on her their project and provides interesting insights for the brand managers.
The Lady in the Economy Flight Queue
When Jessie was a PhD student at Indiana University, she met a fellow passenger as she was waiting in a boarding queue for economy class travelers. Upon noticing a business class traveler who had just bypassed the queue, the economy class passenger got upset despite being aware that the traveler enjoyed priority boarding due to a different class ticket. She proceeded to explain to Jessie how unfair she thought the occurrence was. In contrast, Jessie viewed it as a normal feature of a more expensive service. The incident got Jessie thinking that individuals vary in terms of power distance values. Indeed, some people accept power distances, whereas others are less likely to do so. Jessie decided to formally study this phenomenon coming up with the idea that power distance beliefs play an essential role in determining consumers’ brand choices. Eventually she teamed up with her supervisor Professor Ashok Lalwani and colleague Professor Devon DelVecchio and completed this project as one of the chapters of her doctoral dissertation.
“I mentioned this incident in all my job-talks because it was intriguing. Whenever I uncover interesting differences among consumers who experience a similar event, I always look for explanations. This is who I am.” said Jessie.
Power Distance Beliefs x Brand Preferences
Simply put, power distance belief (PDB) refers to the extent to which one accepts hierarchies, power gaps, or distances in social interactions and relationships, regardless of his/her actual state of power. A high (low) PDB individual exhibits high (low) acceptance and liking for power distances or hierarchies. Returning to the example of the passenger in the queue, we can consider her values to be less accepting of power distance although she might not be a powerful person.
In one of the experiments presented in the paper, the participants were grouped in high- and low-PDB conditions and eventually chose mass or niche brands respectively. This experiment was supplemented by a field study, where high-scored PDB individuals chose to purchase mass-market brands, for example, Lay’s potato chips over niche brands, for example, Miss Vicky’s potato chips and vice versa.
Low (high) acceptance for power distance leads to a preference for niche (mass) brands
Risk Aversion – The Underlying Driver
Probing more into the phenomenon, the researchers further play around with the underlying handle of the PDB-brand choice relationship, which is risk aversion. Under high-risk product usage conditions, such as, purchasing gifts for a significant other’s parents, low PDB customers’ preferences for mass-market brands moved upwards. Likewise, when high PDB customers got an extended money-back offer that minimizes risk, they chose more niche brands compared to when there was no such offer.
Even though it is a personality trait, PDB can be temporarily primed and therefore be utilized to influence consumers’ behavior, suggests the Wang, Lalwani, and DelVecchio paper. For instance, managers of mass-market brands targeting customers from high PDB societies can catch more attention simply by framing mottos that prime power distance, like, ‘You deserve to reach the top.’ Want to know more about the implications? Find the complete article here.
A Dent to Remember
During their preparation to set up the field experiment, Jessie and her colleague Devon had to transport a shelf to the field venue. To do so they placed the shelf in the trunk of a Honda Odyssey that belonged to Devon and the shelf ended up denting the Honda. However there was no regret in the end because the field experiment was a success and the work was finally accepted and published in IJRM.
Meet the Author
Associate Professor in Marketing
Farmer School of Business
Born in China, Jessie received both her undergraduate and doctoral trainings in Marketing from Indiana University, Bloomington. Pursuing a PhD was not something she planned originally. It just happened, and she treasured every bit of it. The process of knowledge creation holds significant meaning for her as she sees it as a way to benefit the next-generation scholars.
The Twirlista CEO
Apart from being an academic and social psychologist, Jessie is an entrepreneur. She is the founding CEO of a company named Twirlista. A cause-driven individual, Jessie aims to offer young people a viable solution to fast fashion waste. Her company runs trunk-shows on campuses to rent attires out to college students at a minimal price; and donates a part of its earnings to the national forest foundation. The goal is to make the ‘rent and re-use’ concept mainstream among the gen-Zers, who have a massive inclination towards purchasing new clothes, literally for every new Insta snap. No wonder Jessie promptly responded, ‘a CEO’, when I asked her what she would like to be if she weren't an academic.
Consumer Welfare at the Forefront
One concept that Jessie would like to retain from marketing is consumer welfare. As much as she strives to offer knowledge that advances the science of marketing and benefits businesses, she wants to make sure to bring positive changes in consumers’ attitudes and behaviors with a view to giving back to society. Hence an inspiration to understand the core of a phenomenon and get a good grip on the process is what keeps Jessie going as a researcher.
This article was written by
PhD Candidate in Marketing, BI Norwegian Business School