To the Luxury Breaking Point and Beyond: A Mixed Methods Investigation of Upward Social Comparison, the Luxury Travel Industry, and Instagram

Francesca Gasperini Gilbe, Anders Groot Drage Sørensen & Sophia Bessie Svanholm Mitchell

Student thesis: Master thesis


Contemporary scholars (Liu, Wu & Li, 2019) suggest that upward social comparison affects consumers’ desire to travel, while also claiming that the higher the luxury, the higher this desire becomes. This “the more the better” view on luxury, contradicts other findings from the literature suggesting that for instance (1) desire is affected negatively by the improbability of obtaining the object in question (Belk, Ger & Askegaard, 2003) and that (2) upward social comparison can be both positive and negative (Collins, 1996), which leads us to speculate that it is not always the case that more luxury will lead to a higher desire to travel. The purpose of this project is, thus, to address these contradictions, and to introduce the idea of the existence of a luxury breaking point. The project takes its point of departure in the proposition that any level of luxury up to the mentioned breaking point will have a positive influence on positive upward social comparison and, thus, in turn, on aspirational tourism consumption. After the breaking point is reached, however, we propose that this positive influence on positive upward social comparison will diminish and pave the way for a turn to negative upward social comparison instead. Thus, changing the nature of the upward social comparison taking place and, hence, lead to a change in the aspirational tourism consumption. The research objectives depicted above were addressed within a Danish consumer context, and, although the project was not limited to a certain age group, millennials turned out to comprise the majority of respondents. Also, the investigation focused on upward social comparisons taking place as a result of travel posts on Instagram, since, although it is one of the most popular social networking sites (SNS) in the world, it has received little academic attention (Kleemans, Daalmans, Carbaat & Anschütz, 2018). Also, the research objectives were addressed via a sequential mixed methods research design, comprising (1) an exploratory phase (a focus group), then (2) a quantitative phase (a survey, i.e. Study 1), and finally (3) a qualitative phase (interviews, i.e. Study 2). In Study 1, a regression analysis of N=199 responses showed tendencies towards the existence of a luxury breaking point. Yet, the idea that, at this point, a switch from positive to negative upward social comparison should take place was disregarded. Instead, results indicate that this point may lead to a decrease in both types of upward social comparison, while suggesting that a sort of consumer dissociation takes place instead. This result called for a slight change of focus as well as the development of a third proposition for the remainder of the investigation. In Study 2, a thematic analysis of N=6 interviews further strengthened the idea of the existence of a luxury breaking point. Just as Study 1, Study 2 cast away the original proposition of what takes place after the luxury breaking point. Instead, we found several indications that may confirm the revised proposition about dissociation. Lastly, Study 2 provided some interesting insights into the rationale behind consumer behavior in relation to luxury, tourism marketing and social comparison on Instagram and SNS in general. The key results, thus, indicate that a luxury breaking may exist, at which positive upward social comparison diminishes and a consumer dissociation takes place. Hence, we contribute to current literature by introducing the concept of a luxury breaking point in a tourism marketing context. Also, it adds new knowledge to the previously identified research gap concerning Instagram as a platform for tourism marketing. This investigation provides a range of theoretical as well as managerial implications. E.g. it provides suggestions for additions to existing theories addressing luxury (e.g. Vigneron &Johnson, 2004) and theories on desire (e.g. Belk et al., 2003). For practitioners, findings e.g. underline that Instagram is a powerful tool to manage eWOM, but that it has various challenges that can make it seem untrustworthy, which in turn may impact e.g. the image and consumer perception of the travel brand. The project unveils several consumer perceptions and prejudices regarding luxury, which may further inform current tourism marketing practices.

EducationsMA in International Business Communication (Intercultural Marketing), (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2020
Number of pages133
SupervisorsAlexander Josiassen