Imagine this: You are a cigar smoker who has become comfortable with a specific Nicaraguan brand of cigars, which you regularly enjoy. However, you learn that the Cuban embargo will soon be lifted, and excitedly pre-order a box of previously unavailable Cuban cigars. As you eagerly anticipate receiving the Cubans, you make do with your old Nicaraguans. You then learn that the embargo will remain in place—to your dismay, there will be no Cuban cigars! Has this experience of a “jilt” changed how you will purchase cigars in the future? In particular, will you continue to prefer your incumbent Nicaraguan cigars, or have you become more likely to switch to an altogether different brand?
How Do Marketers “Jilt” Consumers?
New research published in the Journal of Marketing Research explores the question of how the experience of a jilt—that is, the anticipation of receiving a highly desirable option only to have it become inaccessible (e.g., the Cuban cigars)—changes preference for an incumbent product (e.g., the Nicaraguan cigars). The research results indicate that preference for incumbent, status quo options such as the Nicaraguan cigars in our opening example may shift dramatically due to jilting. As such, jilting can provide an opportunity to pull consumers away from their entrenched product preferences.
When Are Consumers Jilted?
Jilting occurs in marketing contexts when a consumer anticipates that she or he will receive a desirable product or service but then loses access to that option before actually receiving it. Such product-related jilts happen frequently. Consider how marketing messages excite consumers with promises of new and better products only to have those products become inaccessible through stockouts, launch delays, cancellations, and other breakdowns in product availability.
When the shiny new option is taken away, consumers are left with their incumbent, status quo option. The authors conducted a series of studies to determine whether, due to a jilt, the incumbent product loses some of its previous luster or whether consumers hang on more tenaciously to their preferred incumbent.
Jilting Changes Consumer Preference for the Status Quo
A series of field and laboratory experiments show that the experience of a jilt decreases preference for the incumbent product, thereby freeing consumers to explore new and different alternatives. For example, in an initial field study, the researchers recruited staff at Pennsylvania State University during morning hours to evaluate real bottles of $15 California chardonnay. To establish an incumbent product, all participants held and evaluated their wine with the promise of receiving that bottle at the end of the day. At lunchtime, roughly half of the participants were told that a limited number of bottles of a fine French chardonnay, valued at $50, would be a replacement option while supplies lasted. Upon pickup, these participants were told that the fine French chardonnay had already been given away—they were jilted! All participants ultimately chose between their $15 California incumbent and a different bottle of $15 wine. Those consumers who were not jilted chose the incumbent wine option 88% of the time; however, jilted participants chose the incumbent wine only 57% of the time. Jilting significantly reduced consumer preference for the incumbent wine and increased preference for other alternatives.
How Does Jilting Decrease Preference for the Incumbent?
A different study using a similar wine scenario revealed that as soon as participants begin to anticipate the new, desirable option (e.g., the fine French wine), they start to have more negative thoughts about their incumbent option. Even after the jilt occurs, these denigrating thoughts carry forward to make the incumbent less desirable. The negative emotions that are caused by the jilt also shift consumers away from the incumbent. In particular, the loss of access to the exciting new option induces sadness, which shifts consumers away from the incumbent and toward other, previously unexplored options. Thus, the heart and mind of the consumer shift away from the incumbent to seek out new and different alternatives.
What Does this Mean for Marketers?
From a managerial standpoint, understanding jilting is important given the frequency of jilt-related marketing phenomena such as stockouts, lack of distribution or channel access, and launch delays of preannounced products.
For marketing managers, incumbent option preference is particularly relevant because attempts to shift consumer preferences away from an incumbent through competitive offerings are often met with resistance. That is, consumers typically prefer the incumbent over otherwise comparable alternatives (e.g., status quo bias). This represents a unique challenge for marketers of products that are not overwhelmingly superior to entrenched incumbents. By better understanding consumers’ responses to jilting, firms will be better able to identify jilt-related circumstances that are likely to shift people away from an incumbent option. Specifically, jilting—even though often unintentionally initiated by a firm or circumstances beyond the firm’s control—may undermine adherence to the incumbent brand. For a competitor, however, jilting situations may represent an opportunity to steal share away from the incumbent brand.
These research findings are particularly relevant for brand managers, product marketing managers, and retailers involved in product launches and product availability in competitive market environments. Marketers regularly promote highly desirable, aspirant products to consumers in the hopes of increasing purchase intentions. However, consumers anticipating such products may become jilted for any number of reasons. Such jilts provide opportunities for competitors to steal market share away from the status quo option and serve as a source of exposure for the jilting firm or brand. For example, what are the implications for a current customer who intended to upgrade within a brand, but was jilted? The results, coupled with those of Litt, Khan, and Shiv (2010), suggest that people will be less satisfied with both their incumbent option as well as the denied upgrade. This presents a situation ripe for customer defection to competitors. Implications for in-brand repeat purchases warrant particular consideration. The findings suggest that brand managers should work closely with retailers to ensure that shelf availability and promotional activities (e.g., limited quantity sale pricing, intense demand-generation advertising campaigns) are sufficient to meet demand, particularly during new product launches.
Overall, the results indicate that jilted consumers are less likely to stick to their status quo option and more likely to pursue new and different alternatives. This can offer competitors opportunities to acquire market share from entrenched rivals. Situations in which a competitor delays a high-profile product launch, experiences availability issues, or otherwise jilts consumers provide such competitive opportunities because the jilted consumers are more likely to move away from the entrenched incumbent. This research suggests that firms should invest in identifying such opportunities, then strike while the iron is hot with promotions directed toward consumers who have experienced a jilt.
Aaron M. Garvey, Margaret G. Meloy, and Baba Shiv (2017), “The Jilting Effect: Antecedent, Mechanisms, and Consequences for Preference,” Journal of Marketing Research, 54 (October), 785–98.
Ab Litt, Uzma Khan, and Baba Shiv (2010), “Lusting While Loathing: Parallel Counterdriving of Wanting and Liking,” Psychological Science, 21 (January), 118–25.