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Watching how college students employ fashion to express themselves has influenced Sara Dommer’s research on the connection between brands and personal identity.

Faculty Profile: Sara Dommer Exploring How Brands Influence Personal Identity

Sara Dommer doesn’t have to open her mother’s cupboard to tell you exactly what brands of spaghetti sauce and other products are housed inside. “She’s a big brand loyalist,” she explains.

Seeing that pattern while growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, might have influenced Dommer’s eventual interest in studying the connection between brands and personal identity.

Now an assistant professor of marketing at Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business, Dommer is herself loyal to very few brands. “I guess that’s surprising given the research I do, but I tend to jump around and buy what’s on sale,” she says. “I’m the type of person who’ll start a relationship with a brand, then find another one in a year.”

Closing the Gap

In her research, Dommer examines how consumers often use brands (from cars to clothes to computers) to express their personal identity and compensate for a lack of self-esteem. “When people feel far from the person they’d like to be, they sometimes use brands to help close the gap,” she explains.

For example, in one recent study, Dommer observed how making people feel like inadequate Americans increased their interest in buying domestically made products.

“We had test subjects take quizzes on American history and government (an easy or hard version),” Dommer explains. “Then we showed them ads for laptops advertised as foreign or American. Those who took the difficult quiz, and as a result scored poorly, said they’d be more likely to consider the U.S. brand.”

Fitting In

Watching how college students employ fashion to express themselves has also influenced Dommer’s research. In a study forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research, she examines how students not only wear brands that make them feel like they fit in, but also those that differentiate them from others.

“When students with low self-esteem feel included in groups, they tend to be drawn to status brands like Armani Exchange in order to protect their sense of inclusion,” Dommer explains. “But if they feel excluded, they might be drawn to non-mainstream clothing brands.”

However, their attempts to differentiate their dress are likely a means of seeking belonging in another group or subgroup, Dommer says. “That way it becomes okay to be different.”

Other research by Dommer that gained significant media attention last year showed that men and women have different motivations when they shop. While women are more likely to make a purchase to fit in with a group, men are more likely to do so to distinguish themselves, according a the study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Endowment Effect

But both men and women develop a feeling of ownership and attachment once they purchase a product – and therefore would be likely to place more monetary value on an item than it is actually worth (what is called an endowment effect), Dommer explains.

“Traditionally, the endowment effect has been thought to occur because selling a good feels like a loss and sellers increase the valuation to compensate for the pain associated with this loss,” she says.

“But we showed that it’s ownership that’s driving the effect and not loss aversion. We value things we own more and put some of ourselves into those objects.”

Marketers could apply these findings, Dommer explains, by creating feelings of ownership through promotional strategies such as free trials and samples. For example, sporting goods retailers could boost sales by allowing shoppers to try out equipment in the store. A consumer might also become more likely to buy a product after a 30-day trial, Dommer adds.

Dommer, who teaches Integrated Marketing Communication to undergraduate and MBA students, enjoys bringing her research findings and those of her colleagues into the classroom. “I just love teaching,” she stresses.

Attraction to Academe

Dommer knew that an academic career would be her path after completing her undergraduate honors thesis at Penn State in 2005. “I had so much fun conducting that research that I wondered, ‘How do I do this for a living?’ Then I found out that you get your PhD,” she says.

But before delving into her doctoral studies, Dommer first wanted to gain some real-world experience. So she spent two years working in a variety of capacities for a small integrated marketing firm, handling everything from public relations and marketing research to advertising and Web design.

She joined the Scheller faculty in 2012 after earning her PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. “Everyone at Tech has been so welcoming, and the faculty is very supportive. They want to see young professors succeed.”

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