Perfectly imperfect : a consumer-centered perspective on imperfection in marketing communications

Gerecht, Svenja; Wentzel, Daniel (Thesis advisor); Landwehr, Jan R. (Thesis advisor)

Aachen (2022)
Dissertation / PhD Thesis

Dissertation, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, 2022


The constant strive for optimization can be considered one of the most important values of our time. Enhanced efficiency and performance as well as continuous self-improvement are perceived as critical in keeping up with an idealized, seemingly flawless world (King et al., 2021). These circumstances give rise to a multitude of pressures for optimization and perfection in the individual, often leading to conflicts and discrepancies in attitude and behavior (King et al., 2021). The pervasive idealization of appearance and body shapes in advertising and the media does not only have a negative impact on individuals’ self-perception and mental well-being (e.g., Harper & Tiggemann, 2008) but also biases consumption behavior through internalization of the postulated values. As such, past research shows that the ‘what is beautiful is good’-heuristic does not only apply to the interpersonal context but also to consumers’ evaluation and choice of products (e.g., Hagen, 2021; Wan et al., 2017). Herein, imperfections of any kind are considered unacceptable, being avoided or concealed. In turn, to be evaluated favorably, products need to be flawless, just like consumers aspire their selves to be. The resulting picky purchase behavior leads to problematic downstream consequences; for instance, a large quantity of consumable fruits and vegetables is discarded because of minor visual flaws, resulting in food waste. Consequently, the omnipresent strive for perfection and rejection of anything imperfect - towards which consumers have been conditioned - does not only harm individuals, but also the society and environment. At the same time, the general public increasingly dismisses perfectionism and appreciates imperfections instead, as reflected in body positivity statements and diversity showcasing. Not only individuals but also companies engage in this societal change, commercializing the ‘perfection of imperfection’ - for instance, by using atypical endorsers or purposefully promoting visually imperfect produce. Yet, despite the topic’s increasing popularity in practice, academic research to date provides only scattered, unspecific, and superficial evidence on how to effectively use and promote imperfection in marketing communications (see Grabe et al., 2008; Hartmann et al., 2021, for reviews). This particularly holds for adopting a consumer-centered perspective, identifying underlying psychological processes and boundary conditions of imperfection’s use. Moreover, past research lacks detailed insights on imperfection’s impact on marketing-relevant indicators, such as brand liking and product choice. These gaps are surprising, as insights might a) support marketing theory in better understanding consumers’ responses to imperfection and approaches to trigger desired outcomes and b) enable marketing practice to develop context- and goal-specific, effective communication measures.This dissertation addresses the identified research gaps and, in three independent research papers, examines imperfection in marketing communications from a consumer-centered perspective. Importantly, while all of the papers are embedded in this broader context, each of them discusses the topic from a different angle and focuses on addressing smaller research gaps. Research paper I investigates the influence of endorser atypicality (i.e., endorsers that do not fit to the beauty ideal of advertising) on consumers’ valuation of the brand using these endorsers. Moreover, it examines the mediating effect of endorsers’ perceived uniqueness and the moderating roles of consumption motive (utilitarian vs. hedonic) and national culture (tightness-looseness and power distance beliefs). The findings of this paper are particularly relevant in understanding the circumstances under which the use of atypical endorsers is (not) advisable. Adopting a different perspective, research paper II focuses on identifying point-of-sale communication measures incentivizing consumers’ choice of imperfect produce. Specifically, this paper investigates the role of anthropomorphization and emotionalized communication (depicting happiness and sadness) in choosing imperfect produce in both an online and field setting. It also outlines the mediating roles of consumers’ perceived compassion for and positive affect towards imperfect produce. The uncovered ‘compassion effect’ provides insights into how emotions can be used effectively in promoting imperfect produce. Research paper III also addresses point-of-sale communication for imperfect produce. This paper, however, investigates whether providing fact-based sustainability consequence information at the point-of-sale can increase consumers’ choice of imperfect produce. Specifically, it examines whether gain- or loss-framed messages are more effective in both an online and field setting. In addition, the paper studies the moderating role of perceived self-efficacy in translating awareness of and individual responsibility for food waste into actual purchasing behavior. The findings of this dissertation are relevant to both marketing theory and practice. Theoretical and managerial contributions are discussed on a comprehensive level as well as within the individual research papers.