Is Top Rated More Persuasive than Best Seller?

The marketplace is full of cues about a product’s popularity. There are two types of consensus cues, or statements about how others generally responded to the product: Cues that describe others’ attitudes (“top rated,” implying the product is widely liked) and cues that describe others’ behaviors (“best seller,” implying the product is widely purchased). Can this subtle difference in consensus cues affect persuasion? In their recent Journal of Consumer Research article, Aaron J. Barnes and Sharon Shavitt show that the effectiveness of attitudinal versus behavioral consensus cues depends on the audience’s cultural context.

One might assume that consensus cues about liking and about buying are conveying similar information. After all, people buy what they like, right? Not necessarily. Research in psychology and marketing suggests that people in cultures that cultivate an interdependent self-construal (e.g., India and China) are motivated to conform to norms and maintain harmony, so they don’t necessarily make their choices based on their own attitudes. Therefore, for interdependent people, behavioral consensus may provide a weak signal about other people’s preferences. Instead, because purchase choices often conform to what is normative, a “best seller” cue may signal what people often do but not what they really like. In contrast, a cue describing many people’s positive attitudes should be more persuasive.

Aaron J. Barnes and Sharon Shavitt

However, in cultures that cultivate an independent self-construal (e.g., the U.S. and U.K.), people believe that behaviors are driven by attitudes. Choices reveal preferences. Thus, for independent people, behavioral consensus may be just as diagnostic as attitudinal consensus, and thus just as persuasive.

In five studies using primary data, we find evidence that attitudinal consensus cues are more persuasive than behavioral consensus cues in interdependent contexts, but not in independent ones. People in a predominantly interdependent country (i.e., India), those with higher levels of measured interdependence, and those primed to have a more salient interdependent self-construal indicated more favorable product attitudes and a willingness to pay 28% more on average for products shown with attitudinal (vs. behavioral) consensus cues. In contrast, people in a predominantly independent country (i.e., U.S.), those with higher levels of measured independence, and those primed to have a more salient independent self-construal were not affected by consensus cue type.

In two studies using secondary data, we further showed how the effects of different types of consensus might manifest in the real world. Data scraped from Amazon for multiple products in an interdependent culture (India) showed that actual attitudinal consensus (reflected in 5-star ratings) does not correspond with actual behavioral consensus (reflected in best seller rankings). However, these indicators do correspond in an independent culture (U.S.), where the better-selling brands are generally higher rated. Moreover, in a Brand Asset Valuator dataset of over 8,700 brands in eight countries, we found that attitudinal consensus is a stronger predictor of brand equity than is behavioral consensus in interdependent cultures (e.g., Mexico, South Korea), but not in independent cultures (e.g., Canada, Denmark).

Culturally-informed marketing insights separate effective marketing communications from the fray. Marketers around the world routinely use consensus cues to grab consumers’ attention and persuade them of a product’s desirability. Our research shows that, for interdependent consumers, communicating consensus about others’ preferences (as opposed to their behaviors) is likely to be a more effective approach to persuasion.

Read the full paper:

Aaron J Barnes and Sharon Shavitt

Journal of Consumer Research, ucad074,