Role and Impact of Narcissism on Mass Customization systems


This paper studies the rising trend in narcissism and its effect on the demand for self-designed products. Mass-production systems can be adapted to make several different varieties of a product. Items from automobiles to toothpaste are manufactured in that way. The basic structure of mass customization is similar to that of mass production with variety, but there are important differences. Instead of selecting one variety of a product, each customer provides unique information so that the product can be tailored to his or her requirements. The production process must be very flexible in order to meet those requirements. This study demonstrates that (a) narcissistic consumers demonstrate a preference for customized products that correspond with their views of themselves as unique individuals and (b) narcissism can be used to enhance marketing strategies. This paper helps to shed light on the importance of the symbolic value of purchasing decisions, which for these consumers seems to outweigh even the practical usefulness of the product being bought.



As mentioned before, this study explores how narcissism leads to greater interest in exclusive, customizable and personalizable products. Various studies show that narcissists rate themselves dominant but insensitive (Bradlee & Em-mons, 1992;Mahadevan, Gregg, De—Waal Andrews, & Sedikides,2012a), and on experimental tasks denigrate others to magnify their own performance (Sedikides, Campbell, Reeder, Elliot, &Gregg, 2002). Therefore we can say that, narcissistic self-regard is rooted in agency—accomplishing goals to achieve social status—rather than in communion—relating harmoniously to ensure social inclusion (Campbell & Foster, 2007;Campbell,Rudich, & Sedikides, 2002). Narcissists are known to enhance their distinctiveness in several ways. They report a higher need for uniqueness, uniqueness being the ultimate distinctiveness. Narcissists present a better looking appearance and promote themselves forthrightly on Facebook. They are keener to buy several products that look impressive than products that perform better (Sedikides, Cisek, & Hart, 2011). This indicates an interest in consumer products for what they show rather than for what they do. Therefore, the hypothesis of this study is that narcissistic tendencies have a significant effect on the uniqueness of the self-customized product. 

    Mass-customization systems have three key capabilities: elicitation (a mechanism for interacting with the customer and obtaining specific information); process flexibility (production technology that fabricates the product according to the information); and logistics (subsequent processing stages and distribution that are able to maintain the identity of each item and to deliver the right one to the right customer). The goal of mass customization is to provide customers what they want when they want it. For example, Pandora relieves people of having to channel-surf through radio stations to find the music they like. Customers submit an initial set of their preferred songs, and from that information the company identifies a broader set of music that fits their preference profile and then broadcasts those songs as a custom radio channel. Customers of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG can use an online tool kit to design the roof of a Mini Cooper with their very own graphics or picture, which is then reproduced with an advanced digital printing system on a special foil. The tool kit has enabled BMW to tap into the custom after-sales market, which was previously owned by niche companies. In addition, Mini Cooper customers can also choose from among hundreds of options for many of the car’s components, as BMW is able to manufacture all cars on demand according to each buyer’s individual order. My Virtual Model Inc., based in Montreal, is changing the very nature of the buying experience. The software enables consumers to build virtual models, or “avatars,” of themselves that allow them to evaluate (by virtually trying on or using) products from retailers like adidas, Best Buy, Levi’s and Sears. Therefore, Mass customization systems allow consumers to differentiate themselves from others by communicating their own identity via unique self-designed products.

    The first study argues that narcissistic consumers are eager to stand out in order to appear unique, as well as to command attention and admiration of others, with both processes influencing product configuration. For narcissists, the purchase and consumption of unique products is likely to serve as an important interpersonal strategy to project a colorful lifestyle to the public. In terms of marketing, narcissistic consumers should be more likely to desire unique product options and thus to configure distinctive products via MC (Mass Customization) systems, in order to act in accordance with their narcissistic personalities. To date, only little research has addressed the narcissistic consumer at the empirical level.

    The second study suggests that firms should consider customers’ innate narcissistic tendencies, as well as the ability to influence their current states of mind, to exploit the largely untapped individualization potential of mass customization systems. For example, In Apple’s 2002 “Window” ad, the active presence of a user suggests the integration of the self, the body, and the machine — a rhetorical move signifying computer and user as an integrated unit. The metaphor suggests that computers are not to be viewed as outside threats, but as intimate and integrated extensions of our own human faculties. In the ad, a man is looking at himself just as much as he is looking at the impish machine. This recalls the Greek Narcissus myth where the young man is transfixed by his own reflection in the pool of water but does not recognize the reflection as himself. The attraction of technology stems in part from our admiration of ourselves; personal technology points us back to ourselves. The man sees the computer as a separate entity, and yet the computer responds to his every move as if he were looking in a mirror. The computer symbolizes an extension of human thought, communication, and memory.



    The first proposed study is to examine the impact of consumers’ narcissistic tendencies on the uniqueness of configured products. Building on the real world findings, we have established that recent car buyers scoring high on narcissism, tend to use online car configurators more often and chose product options that were selected by few other consumers. Further, they more frequently purchased a new (vs. used) car and also paid a higher price for it. 

    The participants are a mix of one hundred undergraduates and postgraduates enrolled at various universities in New York. Participants have to configure a car using a mock-up online car configurator, allowing us to determine the uniqueness of participants’ product configurations by an objective measure. Similar studies have been done where, a validated and well-established measure of non-pathological narcissism (NPI-15; Schütz, Marcus, and Sellin 2004) is used to assess relevant deviations from the normal range of self-esteem and is based on Raskin and Terry’s (1988) concept of narcissism as a subclinical personality construct (AmericanPsychiatric Association 2013). To examine the uniqueness of the customized automobile, they assessed (1) car buyers’ subjective uniqueness perception as well as (2) an objective index of product uniqueness. 

    The second proposed study is to provide marketers with a tool to influence consumer narcissism along with its distinct effects on product uniqueness. The same participants will be led to believe that a marketing survey was being conducted. Its alleged purpose is to “better understand consumer opinions about a new product launched in the market.” Participants will be reminded that there are no right or wrong answers and that their anonymity will be ensured. They will be given a booklet to guide them through the task and provide space for recording their responses. Participants will be asked to inspect a printed screenshot of a made up fashion website, designed to look classy and professional. It features images of sharply attired models of both genders. Most images depict the website’s unique selling proposition: the capacity to tailor shirts in accord with one’s personal preferences. In particular, online shoppers will be able to select their shirts by fabric, color, style,and size. Furthermore, they can append a customized label to each shirt—an option flagged by the onscreen button “individualize.” To verify that the custom shirt has the capacity to make its wearers distinctive, we will ask 34 undergraduates the following question: “How would wearing such a shirt make a person appear in a crowd?” They have to answer by providing a rating on a 9-point scale (1/not at all distinctive, 9/very distinctive). Similar studies have been done where, they used an existing automobile advertisement that displayed a car driving in a natural scene. For the experiment, they added a slogan that was placed prominently in the top-left corner of the ad and varied between conditions, with effects expected similar to a lexical decision task (cf. Sakellaropoulo and Baldwin 2007). In the narcissism activation condition, the slogan read “You impress. Like the new Audi A6,” while in the acceptance activation condition it was “You belong. Like the new Audi A6”. Consumers were requested to “look carefully at the image and the slogan of the advertisement and visualize the scene” and to write down “thoughts and feelings about the scene.” While the ad-based priming influenced state narcissism in the pretest, it also affected the uniqueness of consumers’ configured cars in the main study.



    If the hypothesis in the first study proves to be correct then that implies that a consumer’s level of narcissism is a significant positive predictor of how unique a product is configured in an online MC system (while controlling for demographics such as age, income or car expertise), with narcissists’ enhanced need for uniqueness and feelings of superiority mediating this effect. In addition, narcissistic consumers configured more expensive products (compared to less narcissistic ones), given that unique product options are more expensive than common ones. These results would suggest that unique configured products help express the narcissist’s personality and their tendency to self-enhance (as expressed by their sense of superiority). Therefore, MC systems seem to be ideal tools for narcissistic consumers. 

    If the hypothesis in the second study proves to be correct then that implies that consumers primed with state narcissism (or those high in trait narcissism) tend to choose product options that are selected by few other consumers, therefore self-designing more unique products and thus exploiting the largely untapped potential of MC systems. Thus, systems can be best designed to correspond with and even influence consumers’ motives. The opportunity provided by MC systems to show the world that “I made it myself” is tailored to narcissists’ inherent desire to distinguish themselves from others.

    Narcissistic self-regard thus seems to serve a function contrary to non narcissistic self-esteem: It apparently tracks social status, not social inclusion.While MC systems are designed to allow the individualization of products, few consumers using MC systems take advantage of this fact and actually configure unique products. This experimental study indicates that narcissists, whose incidence rates are steadily increasing around the globe, are likely to be associated with unique product configuration within MC systems. This consumer segment is of particular interest within the realm of customizing a product, given that these consumers systematically deviate from the mainstream in order to define their unique identity with unique products. In the light of initial evidence showing that narcissistic mind states can be primed (Sakellaropoulo and Baldwin 2007), these findings may have the potential to make a difference for firms offering MC systems as well as for researchers studying these devices.



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de Bellis, Emanuel, et al, The Influence of Trait and State Narcissism on the Uniqueness of Mass-CustomizedProducts, Journal of Retailing (xxx, 2015), https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ j.jretai.2015.11.003

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Schütz, Astrid, Bernd Marcus and Ina Sellin (2004), “Measuring Narcissismas a Personality Construct: Psychometric Properties of a Long and a ShortVersion of the German Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” Diagnostica, 50(4), 202–18.

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