Psychological Ownership: The Key to Forming Multi-Layered Consumer Connections

By Nicola Brown on August 14, 2018

Remember when you were a kid and you had that favorite toy you wouldn't let anyone else touch? If anyone so much as looked at it you'd explode in a fit of rage and sorrow, or disappear into a corner to sulk? It turns out this innate sense of possessiveness doesn't disappear as we get older, and it's a powerful motivational force in marketing psychology that content creators and marketers should tap into when looking to build stronger emotional ties with the people who interact with their brand.

What Is Psychological Ownership?

In a nutshell, psychological ownership is the feeling that something belongs to us or that something is a part of us. We can feel psychological ownership over all sorts of things from tangible objects (our clothes and our car) to more abstract ones (our relationships and our cultural traditions).

In Psychological Ownership and Consumer Behavior, researchers Pierce and Peck explain that this sense of ownership comes from "an innate tendency to collect and take possession, which gets reinforced by socialization practices (e.g., mother's instructions 'don't touch what's not yours, go and get your ball') to which one is exposed." In other words, our tendency to feel ownership over things is ingrained in how we understand the world.

From a marketer's perspective, it's essential to always view your position to the customer as extending beyond immediate transactional value and establish a complex set of relationship-based connections that will drive future growth.

They describe the sensation as a cognitive state of awareness. This awareness involves thoughts and beliefs about the "target" of ownership, coupled with positive feelings of pleasure, efficacy and competence. Researchers have identified four key motivations that are satisfied when we feel psychological ownership: effectance motivation, self-identity, home, and stimulation. These are the underlying psychological needs that we fulfill by feeling psychological ownership over something.

Effectance motivation is a desire to interact effectively with one's environment and to produce outcomes we want that give rise to pleasure from "being the cause" of something. Self-identity is the motivation by which possessions help people define and express themselves to others, and how we maintain our continuity of self over time. Home is the desire to anchor oneself in time and space, and the desire for a place to dwell that offers familiarity, comfort and security. Stimulation is simply our need for arousal and activation.

Let me better illustrate the way each of these categories works together with my own account of psychological ownership through this Harvard mug I bought on a trip to Boston a few years ago.

marketing psychology

I feel a direct physical ownership over this mug because I bought it combined with positive feelings associated with the memories it brings of that trip and what it symbolizes. It helps define me as a traveler, a tea drinker, and someone who's interested in intellectual pursuits. It offers familiarity, comfort, and security because it's my favorite mug and the one I use most often for my morning tea at home. It also offers stimulation as I remember my trip and the friends I traveled with, and I get a surge of inspirational feelings every time I see it.

Clearly, its meaning and connection go much deeper than just the basic usefulness of the item. From a marketer's perspective, it's essential to always view your position to the customer as extending beyond immediate transactional value and establish a complex set of relationship-based connections that will drive future growth. Some of the most successful brands with loyal, long-term followings have managed to generate these same layered associations and fostered a strong sense of psychological ownership around their products and services.

Here's how you can apply this technique in your own marketing.

How to Foster Psychological Ownership in Your Marketing

Researchers have identified three "routes" to psychological ownership: exercising control over the target of ownership, knowing the target intimately, and investing yourself in the target. The furthest extent of psychological ownership is not just feeling like you own something but feeling that something is a part of you or a part of your identity. Getting your audience or customers to feel psychological ownership towards your brand allows them to hold your products or services in greater value and also drives a continued sense of brand loyalty that prompts them to return to your content again and again.

Here are four ways marketers can incorporate feelings of psychological ownership within their content distribution plan:

1. Physical Interaction Through Experiential Marketing

Routes offered: Exercising control, intimate knowing

In a study from the journal Judgment and Decision Making, the more time people spent physically handling and interacting with an item, the more they felt ownership over that item. This led people to value that item more than items they'd spent less time with. Experiential marketing strategies such as pop-up stores and in-person activations allow people to physically interact with your brand's products. Touching items, picking them up, and manipulating them in various ways all contribute to a feeling of ownership, even before they've been purchased.

This kind of physical interaction works so well because it allows people to literally feel in control of your product, and it gives them time to assess various features in person, which lets them get to know that product intimately in a way that digital-only marketing channels aren't able to provide.

2. User-Generated Content

Routes offered: Investing yourself

Encouraging and amplifying user-generated content is a primary way to establish a connection between individuals' self-expression and your brand. Creating a piece of content takes an investment of time and effort by the creator, which is one of the main routes to fostering psychological ownership. If you're a travel brand for instance, consider sharing images and personal blog posts from customers who have used your services-or even encourage people to record their personal travel diaries and submit them to your main social media accounts.

man taking a selfie

Image attribution: Antoine Beauvillain

The more you can encourage user-generated content and respond to and amplify it, the more your audience will recognize opportunities to feel psychological ownership in relation to your brand and feel rewarded by that process.

3. Collaborative Content and Product Development

Routes offered: Exercising control, intimate knowing, investing yourself

Take your marketing efforts one step further by inviting your customer into your product development process. This is perhaps the greatest level of "control" your customer can have over your brand.

In one study researchers found that inviting kayak renters to nickname the lake they were paddling on increased their feelings of psychological ownership of the lake. This translated into greater ecological stewardship in the form of picking up more garbage from the lake than those who didn't participate in the naming exercise.

Similarly, inviting people to participate in creating your products-whether through interactive demos, UX tests, or sharing feedback online-encourages psychological ownership. It offers customers a sense of control and investment of time and effort through intimate participation with your brand.

4. Extended and Interactive Social Media Campaigns and Contests

Routes offered: Intimate knowing, investing yourself

In a study published in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, researchers say that social media use is driven by the same motivations that prompt feelings of psychological ownership. This is because social media platforms offer a diverse space for self-expression and self-identity. They're regarded as a form of "home" in the virtual world. Social platforms are also a space where individuals can experience competence and control through creation and interaction.

Creating extended and interactive social media campaigns and contests expands the value of social platforms by getting people to spend more time and effort engaging with your brand through a medium that fosters psychological ownership. You may want to incorporate user polls, Twitter-driven giveaways, or even public competitions to name a new product launch.

For example, Oreo hosted a widely-popular contest to name their newest flavor. Fans submitted their ideas through Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #MyOreoCreation, and the winner earned $500,000, exclusive insights into "how Oreos are brought to life," and the obvious sense of pride and ownership at seeing their creation on grocery store shelves.

You can use these extended time frames to get your audience more intimately familiar with your brand and products. Longer campaign and contest durations also tap into opportunities to connect with people's need for continuity in their self-identity. The longer and more involved the interaction the more they'll feel your brand fits into their underlying sense of identity.

No matter your age, the way you interact with, understand, and invest your time and effort into something determines the extent of the psychological ownership you're likely to feel over it. Knowing how its three routes can be fostered in a multi-channel marketing strategy will help position your brand as central to your audience's sense of identity.

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Featured image attribution: Mel Elías


Nicola Brown

Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at