Examining the intersection of digital brand communication and consumer psychology

by Jeff Merron '92 (Ph.D.)

It is, perhaps, the marketing challenge of our times: how to reach consumers online. More specifically, how to reach young audiences on social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter.

The money is there: in 2016, digital ad spending in the U.S. outstripped TV spending for the first time, $72 billion to TV’s $71 billion. A whopping 68 percent of all American adults use Facebook, even when taking into account those who don’t use the Internet at all. And more than half of those online frequent two or more of the major social media sites.

That is, in large part, why the research being done by Dong Hoo “Dan” Kim, who teaches marketing communication and advertising at UNC, is so important. He focuses on brand communication and consumer psychology, looking at what types of commercial messages resonate with social media users.

Kim earned his Ph.D. in Advertising from the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. Before he began his studies there, he was an advertising account executive in Seoul, South Korea, where he helped develop national campaigns for clients such as Samsung Card (South Korea’s largest credit card company) and construction giant Hyundai Development Company.

Think, for example, about what factors are important to you when you’re considering buying a car. It may be fuel economy, or appearance, or comfort. Speed and power are critical attributes to some, a roomy interior for others. Price is probably important, too.

On the surface, you might think needs and desires differ, and what’s important depends on the individual. But this is only part of the story, Kim suggests. Other factors — such as whether the purchase will take place in one week or one year, and the proximity of a local dealer, also play crucial roles.

Much of Kim’s work revolves around construal level theory. “Construal level theory can explain why people conceptualize objects differently based on their psychological distance,” says Kim. In general, psychological distance is a subjective experience that something is proximal or distant from the self, here, and now (Trope & Liberman, 2010).

Kim explains. “Say you plan to buy a car. Your temporal distance will influence how you conceptualize a car, because if you want to buy a car tomorrow you may be focused on more concrete features of the car like the price and the location of the dealer. If your decision-making time is longer, you are focused on more abstract features like convenience or how comparable the car is to others. Depending on the situation, decision-making will differ.”

The way consumers think about brands — and buying — is highly dependent on timing, Kim emphasizes. “If I’m planning to purchase a car in a year, maybe brand trust or reliability will be more important. If I’m planning to buy in a week, maybe the price or color or kindness of the dealership people will be more important. So depending on the situation, different messages should be provided to the customers. That can increase the effectiveness of the advertising itself.”

Major social media sites serve different audiences, to a certain extent, and otherwise differentiate themselves by providing different tools and environments for interacting with other users, and with the site. This can enable advertisers to market more effectively, based on the user’s state of mind, Kim’s research suggests.

One study Kim conducted compared how users reacted to different ads for an imaginary vacation. One ad emphasized abstract and general benefits of a trip to Cancun (“Relax and unwind in this summer heaven.”) The other offered immediate, concrete rewards (“Click now to save up to 30% on your Cancun adventure.”) What varied was whether the ads were viewed in Facebook’s timeline or news feed.

“In timeline there are lots of my close friends. So timeline can be perceived more psychologically proximal to me,” Kim explains. “By contrast, in the news feed there are lots of people that I know, but we're not that close. That means the news feed is a little more psychologically distant.”

What Kim found was support for the idea that “a concrete message will be more effective in timeline because it is more psychologically proximal; however, more abstract and general information will be more effective in news feed. This is how social distance (one dimension of psychological distance) can have an impact on people's perception.”

Some of Kim’s insights have been gleaned from his students. “I asked them, ‘What's the difference between Instagram and Pinterest?’ They are both image-sharing social networks. But they told me there are tons of different reasons why they use the sites differently. They actually have different motivations.”

The students explained to Kim how they used Pinterest in a more personal fashion than Instagram, with the former being used more to record their “daily lives,” as Kim puts it, and Instagram “to show off their lives to other people.”

This difference could, potentially, have a big impact on how advertising and marketing dollars are allocated, and inspired Kim’s recent study “Do You Prefer Pinterest or Instagram? The Role of Image-Sharing SNSs and Self-Monitoring in Enhancing Ad Effectiveness,” which will be published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Kim (along with co-authors Natalee Seely, a Ph.D. student at UNC, and Jong-Hyuok Jung, who teaches at Texas Christian University) explored the difference between the two social networks methodically. They combined an online survey with a lab experiment to determine that users of Pinterest demonstrated lower self-monitoring, “which in turn led them to respond more positively to (a) product-oriented ad than to the image-oriented ad. The reverse was true when they used Instagram.” (Product-oriented ads are typically designed to sell a specific product or service to a targeted audience, while image-oriented ads aim to enhance a company’s or brand’s general reputation. Leo Burnett’s long-running “Marlboro Man” is an example.)

The idea that not only do individuals differ, but that people think of themselves differently depending on context, is a recurring theme in Kim’s research. So what’s next for Kim? Look for studies on how brands may utilize Snapchat and Pokémon to more effectively target messages to consumers.

Jeff Merron is a freelance journalist who was a staff writer for ESPN.com, a columnist for Macworld.com and a contributer to many other websites as well as national publications. He received his Ph.D. in Mass Communication from UNC in 1992.