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Why Do Customers Misbehave?

Photo by Frank Pelligra
Photo by Frank Pelligra

also by Marty Abbott, DM, and Kalle Lyytinen, PhD

In a recent GBR article we put forward an argument that in using a product or service consumers are afforded the opportunity to use it in ways not originally intended. We argue that customers do this for a variety of reasons, such as increasing the utility of a product, and that such misuse offers the company the potential for additional growth. For many companies, this usage of the product in new and unforeseen ways represents a source of previously untapped innovation. The company need only enable the “misuse” (or more appropriately “bricolage”) to benefit from it. More forward thinking companies will attempt to build products that invite misuse. However, this raises the question of why would users be so motivated to use a product that they would find new and innovative ways of using it? Recent research on social networks has found that users often misuse products in order to display or define their personal identities.[1]

Through participation in situated activities that define human community individuals form their self-identity.[2] People learn about themselves and form their self-identity through direct interactions and social comparison with others. Thus, social interactions help us acquire and maintain our self-identity.[3] Researchers have found that one of the most powerful determinants of self-identity is the arrangement of the current social environment.[4] Individuals will focus on whatever aspects of themselves are most distinctive in a particular social setting. For example, short children will notice their height when in classroom of taller children and women will notice their gender when in a room full of male co-workers. The traits that are noticed come to the forefront of what one declares as their self-identity in that particular situation.

Besides social comparison it is well established in research that people form, at least partially, their self-identity from their possessions.[5] [6] Viewed through this lens, self-identity becomes the assemblage of possessions; signals to define status, social involvement, and stylistic intelligence.[7] Consider the statement made by someone who wears a Rolex watch, one of the largest luxury watch brands. The watch clearly fills a utilitarian need in its ability to tell time, but it does so at a comparatively high price to a less affluent brand or even the other time telling devices that the user might carry such as his or her smart phone. The purchase is likely a result of an affiliation with the Rolex brand and what that brand says about the individual, such as that they are successful, fashion conscious, and affluent. As Ken Kessler says in his Wall Street Journal article “What Your Watch Says About You,” “one’s choice of watch is as important as the quality of the handbag, the cut of one’s suit, the appropriateness of a tie’s pattern, the height of the heel.”[8] A concept called “immersed self-identity” contains the combined influences of fortitude and social support, where the bond between consumers and their brands becomes so entrenched in the consumer’s psyche that it actually becomes part of their self.[9] The consumer intentionally has targeted the social environment, because it is consistent with and supports his or her self-concept. They cannot become whole without seeing the brand as part of their life. In effect, the consumer immerses his or her self-identity in the social system of which the brand is a necessary part.

What happens when our brands and products don’t exactly reflect the self-identity that we want to portray? Some creative and motivated consumers will start using products and services in ways other than how they were initially intended. For example, soldiers returning from World War II were dissatisfied with the motorcycles being built by Harley-Davidson and Indian. As groups of these vets realized the motorcycles needed changes, they started “chopping” the vehicles by removing or shortening (bobbing) the fenders on their bikes. This made the bikes look cool and uncluttered. The utility of the vehicle wasn’t changed, but the image it created helped make statements about the individuals who rode them. The 1969 movie Easy Rider brought notoriety to the chopper lifestyle that then set into motion the wave of cool chopper builders that we see today. Manufacturers took notice of the misuse of the motorcycles (i.e. bobbing and chopping) and built those features into the next generations of the product.

In a recent study utilizing a design-focused toolkit with 717 participants, the researchers found that consumers were willing to pay a considerable price premium (on average 100% increase) for watches they design themselves.[10] In another study, researchers looking into users of the open-source Apache security software found that users who introduced their own software modifications were significantly more satisfied than non-innovating users.[11] Thus, involvement of customers in the design or production process increases their perceptions of the value of the product.

Our research indicates that companies viewing the unexpected usage of their products as “misuse” and categorizing it as something that should be stopped underperform relative to their peers. Conversely, companies that looked to identify and enable “misuse” outperformed their peers. Of these superior performing companies, those with the greatest growth had products that invited “misuse” by helping users to define their identities through misbehavior. By creating features within products that allow users to define and make statements about themselves a firm may be able to incent customer misbehavior. By viewing this misbehavior as a source of free innovation, a firm can expand its product at low cost and in so doing turbo charge growth.


Michael Fisher, PhD, is co-founder of the management and technology consulting firm AKF Partners ( and a guest lecturer at the Weatherhead School of Management. His research is focused on identifying the factors involved in customer driven growth and is the subject of a forthcoming book to be published by Palgrave Macmillan ( Fisher has served as the CTO of Quigo, a startup Internet advertising company acquired by AOL and as VP of Engineering & Architecture for PayPal, Inc., an eBay company. Michael received a PhD and MBA from Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, an MS in Information Systems from Hawaii-Pacific University, and a BS in Computer Science from the United States Military Academy (West Point).


Marty Abbott, DM, is a co-founding partner in the management and technology consulting firm, AKF Partners ( AKF Partners helps companies grow their products, technology, organizations, and processes to meet the demand of hyper-growth in the digital age. Abbott was previously COO of Quigo, an advertising technology firm sold to AOL and SVP/CTO of eBay. He is a research fellow at the Case Western Reserve University focused on customer driven growth. He has a Doctor of Management (DM) from Case Western Reserve University, an MS in Computer Engineering from the University of Florida, a BS in Computer Science from the United States Military Academy (West Point) and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Executive Education Program (Program for Management Development).


Kalle Lyytinen, PhD, is the Iris S. Wofstein Professor of Information Systems at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the Director of CWRU’s Doctorate and PhD in Management programs. He has published over 250 scientific articles and conference papers, and has edited or written eleven books on information systems, system design, method engineering, organizational implementation, risk assessment, computer-supported cooperative work, standardization, and ubiquitous computing. His work helps organizations identify, absorb, manage, implement, and transform technology. Lyytinen received his graduate (PhD, Econ. Lic. And MS) education in computer science and business economics at University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He also holds a PhD h.c. from Umeå University.


[1] Fisher, M., et al., The Co-production of Social Contagion: A Comparative Analysis of Two Social Networking Sites, in Academy of Management OCIS E-commerce and Service Innovation Session2011.

[2]Blumer, H., Symbolic interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, 1969.

[3] Swann, W.B. and C.A. Hill, When our identities are mistaken: Reaffirming self-conceptions through social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1982. 43(1): p. 59.

[4] McGuire, W.J., Search for the self: Going beyond self-esteem and the reactive self. Personality and the prediction of behavior, 1984. 73: p. 120.

[5] Dittmar, H., Perceived material wealth and first impressions. British Journal of Social Psychology, 1992. 31(4): p. 379-391.

[6] Belk, R.W., Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer research, 1988: p. 139-168.

[7] O’Shaughnessy, J. and N.J. O’Shaughnessy, Marketing, the consumer society and hedonism. European Journal of Marketing, 2002. 36(5/6): p. 524-547.

[8]> Kessler, K., What Your Watch Says About You, in Wall Street Journal2011.

[9] Oliver, R.L., Whence consumer loyalty? the Journal of Marketing, 1999: p. 33-44.

[10] Franke, N. and F. Piller, Value creation by toolkits for user innovation and design: The case of the watch market. Journal of product innovation management, 2004. 21(6): p. 401-415.

[11] Franke, N. and E.v. Hippel, Satisfying heterogeneous user needs via innovation toolkits: the case of Apache security software. Research Policy, 2003. 32(7): p. 1199-1215.

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