There is a growing demand in society to tackle environmental challenges. Promoting reuse practices with the consumption of previously owned products could help in this direction. For example, recent efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency with the launch of the ”Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’” campaign are aimed to sensitize the public on this issue.
Therefore, the question we have to ask is “How could consumers’ interest in reuse practices be enhanced further?” In a recent Journal of Marketing Research article, Feifei Huang and Ayelet Fishbach suggest that loneliness is a condition that adds a new dimension to our understanding of how we could strengthen reuse behavior and reduce waste.
Loneliness is considered a modern-day epidemic and can be immensely harmful for our health. Studies show that its impact may be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Murthy 2017). The global COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this “unpleasant feeling of social isolation” and the subsequent incapacity to fulfill social needs experienced by many.
Huang and Fishbach conducted a combination of naturalistic and controlled experiments to show that feeling lonely increases consumers’ preference for previously owned products across a plethora of product categories. This phenomena occurs due to lonely consumers’ desire to symbolically connect with previous owners. Consuming used products provides the opportunity to form a bond with past owners, as lonely consumers believe these products carry some socially transferred essence. Knowledge of previous owners’ characteristics or positive qualities is not the crucial point that matters to consumption of previously owned products; rather, it is the consumers’ experience of loneliness. However, the authors observed that this effect was attenuated when consumers engaged in socially connecting activities. In addition, attenuation of consumption occurs when a product is framed as rejected by previous owners rather than as given by others.
From a consumer well-being perspective, it appears that used products may provide emotional benefits for lonely consumers (i.e., symbolic social connection) beyond the physical benefits of reducing waste.Huang and Fishbach (2021)
Huang and Fishbach’s work puts a spotlight on loneliness and carries significant implications for marketers. Practitioners are advised to capitalize on special occasions that temporally induce the need to socially connect to promote used products consumption, such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Valentine’s Day. Related campaigns can succeed by placing ads in media that target lonely consumers, such as dating apps. A connection-based marketing strategy can be an effective approach to promote previously owned products. An affect-oriented, connection-based message can work well with lonely consumers without the need to highlight the environmental friendliness or cost-effectiveness aspect of used products. The symbolic connection with previous users can be a strong selling point that targets lonely consumers and, at the same time, helps protect the environment by encouraging reuse practices.
We contacted the authors, who shared captivating insights about their research. Read on to discover more about the link between loneliness and used products.
Q & A with authors Feifei Huang and Ayelet Fishbach
Q: You have analyzed the impact of loneliness in several studies. To what extent do you think your findings can be employed from a consumer well-being perspective, and what are some ways that firms can help reduce loneliness?
A: Our results suggest that lonely consumers are interested in used products. From a consumer well-being perspective, it appears that used products may provide emotional benefits for lonely consumers (i.e., symbolic social connection) beyond the physical benefits of reducing waste. Our findings also have direct implications to firms, which could take advantage of situations that temporally induce the need to socially connect to increase consumption of used products. For example, these companies could promote used products to people who do not have a date on Valentine’s Day. Recently, several U.S. brands have offered consumers to opt out of Valentine’s Day’s ads, presumably because they are single. However, these consumers might be interested in used product ads. We note that we did not test whether promoting used products can reduce consumers’ loneliness—but it is very likely to be the case.
Q: Your study employed a variety of product categories tο demonstrate how loneliness increases interest in previously owned products. Do you think that certain product categories are more inclined to trigger this effect, and could you name a product category where this effect may not be observed?
A: We indeed employed a variety of product categories in the studies to demonstrate the generalization of the findings. We expect that most products can carry the symbolic connection with previous users, which are attractive to lonely consumers. Yet, we do not expect the effect for used products that are seen as rejected, rather than handed over voluntarily, by past consumers. When a used product appears as “trash” or elicits disgust, it should not be attractive to those who seek to connect. For example, used personal care products may be less attractive to consumers who seek to connect.
Q: Loneliness is on the rise in modern societies, but at the same time we have increasing opportunities to connect with others virtually. What could virtual connections with others (e.g., Zoom) and machines (e.g., Alexa) mean for your main argument that lonely people seek used products as a means for social connection?
A: Virtual connection with others may, to some extent, alleviate the pain of loneliness, especially when people cannot see each other in person (e.g., the self-isolation that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic). As tested in one of our studies, to the extent that lonely people engage in another socially connecting activity, the effect of loneliness on used products consumption is attenuated. It is possible that virtual connection can reduce lonely consumers’ motivation to seek symbolic connection and thus attenuate the effect on the consumption of used products; however, more research is needed to determine the quality of social connection over virtual platforms.
Q: Based on your understanding of the literature on consumer loneliness, what would you say are the potential limitations of viewing loneliness as a market-mediated phenomenon? Do you think we rely more on the marketplace and expect more from firms than each other and authentic human relations?
A: To have a better understanding of loneliness and tackle the problem, we believe that collective efforts are needed from different parties, including both individual consumers and firms in the marketplace.
Q: The use of social media has remarkably increased in the past decade. To what extent do you think that the “fun” and “social” perceptions that people have of others affect their perceived loneliness? Do you think that social media contributes to the desire to purchase previously owned products?
A: We agree that social media has the potential to exacerbate loneliness, which is ironic given its “promise” to connect individuals and alleviate loneliness. Overuse of social media leads to less face-to-face interaction, which in turn results in loneliness. In addition, the comparison with others who seem to have more social connections may further aggravate loneliness. Therefore, the overuse of social media has the potential to increase used products purchase due to the increased feeling of lack of social connection. However, social media may also have other emotional effects on users. More future research is needed to draw a conclusion on this question.
Q: What would be your advice for practitioners who want to design public-policy interventions aiming to enhance reuse practices for environmental reasons? What do you think should be the core message in this kind of marketing campaign?
A: Public-policy interventions could make use of certain situations that temporally induce the need to socially connect to promote reuse practices. For example, promoting used household items to freshmen would be particularly effective because students who arrive on a new campus may experience loneliness and need to feel socially connected. Similarly, people who just moved to a new city may be more inclined to acquire used products before establishing a new social network. Practitioners could also utilize some specific times, which are more likely to activate a desire to connect and thus an interest in previously owned products. For example, people who are self-isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic, are far from their family on Thanksgiving, or do not have a date on Valentine’s Day might be more interested in previously owned products. When promoting reuse practices to lonely consumers, emphasizing the social connection function can be an effective message.
Read the full article here:
Feifei, Huang and Ayelet Fishbach, (2021), “Feeling Lonely Increases Interest in Previously Owned Products,” Journal of Marketing Research, 58 (5), 968–80.
Murthy, Vivek (2017), “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic,” Harvard Business Review, 9, 3–7.