How to trigger ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and encourage consumer purchase intent

In this month’s Marketing Science Cheat Sheet for brands we explore how brands can tap into the power of benign envy to drive consumers desire to purchase luxury products.

The Insight 

When benign envy is induced, consumers experience a stronger desire to purchase luxury products, as they believe that this will close the perceived gap between themselves and their peer.

Benign envy occurs when the consumer is more focused on the product another person is using, as they consider this to be the cause of the social gap. A social gap refers to the social status difference that a consumer perceives between themselves and the person using the product. They are therefore more motivated to purchase a product that they believe will bring them back on to the same level as their peer.

The Science

Findings from “The Effect Of Benign and Malicious Envy On Desire To Buy Luxury Fashion Items” by Lourerio et al (2018) highlight benign envy is a strong predictor of a consumers desire to purchase luxury items, as it motivates consumers to project success and create positive associations with desired social status.

This is important for brands which offer premium experiences and products, as those which are able to successfully trigger benign envy will be able to increase desire for the product, therefore increasing the chance of purchase.


Instituto Univrsitário de Lisboa in Portugal collaborated with the Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin Business School in Australia to test consumers motivations to purchase luxury fashion inspired by envy.

This research was published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, an international and interdisciplinary forum for research and debate in rapidly developing fields of retailing and services studies.

The report found that when compared to malicious envy, consumers who experienced benign envy expressed a higher level of desire for the product.

Malicious envy occurs when consumers see a peer being socially elevated when they use a product and believes that this is undeserved. They are therefore more focused on the idea of the person losing the product, rather than how they can obtain it themselves to compensate for the perceived social gap.

The findings are supported by research conducted by Gunaseran et al (2017) as they found that when consumers experienced benign envy this affected their purchasing behaviour. The results showed that an increase in desire for a product and willingness to pay more only occurred when the consumer experienced benign envy. This therefore suggests that consumers would be willing to pay more for a luxury product to rectify the perceived social gap between them and their peers.

Who can benefit

The findings of the research point towards premium and luxury brands benefiting from eliciting benign envy in consumers. However, through past experiences designed strategies for the entertainment sector we know first hand that it can a big impact there too.

One of the strengths of developing strategies on human emotions is that they tend to be universal with cultural nuances. So, we encourage you to test the power of envy marketing in your sector.

Opportunities to Create Brand Magic

In order to capitalise on benign envy, brands should craft narratives that implicitly suggest a social status gap between the characters in the story or between the viewer and the primary character. Focusing on the desirability of the product/experience and the benefits it provides to the character who is socially elevated, will drive the audience to focus on the product.

One brand that successfully amplified the desirability of its product was premium coffee brand Nespresso. Through the brand’s advertising campaign, the audience is led to believe that they will be able to close the perceived social gap between themselves and George Clooney by purchasing the product, and enjoy the same experience.


Chanel is able to amplify benign envy through its advertising by taking the audience on a journey with Kiera Knightly, as she retraces her steps looking back at the memorable moments of what looks like an incredible party. The advertisement induced benign envy as it implies that by wearing Chanel the audience will be able to become part of the society depicted in the advertisement, and therefore reduce the perceived social gap.


Apple is a brand that delivers an interesting twist on benign envy. They cleverly combine the impact of fear of missing out (FOMO) with envy. Because consumers know people in their immediate and extended networks will undoubtedly purchase the new iPhone product, they watch the glossy benefits focused advertisements while imagining the how the benefits would improve their lives and any perceivied gaps in social status amongst their peers and aspirational role models. Not only attracting new consumers, this technique works on existing customers, ensuring they upgrade to the latest model.

About StoryScience

Established in 2013, StoryScience is the UK’s first Marketing Science consultancy. Our team of strategists, scientists and storytellers are trusted partners to marketing c-suite and senior management. We use Marketing Science to deliver unfair advantage for our clients across smarter strategy, research and consulting solutions.


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