Sneaky Selling Can Backfire

Consumers rarely notice when manufacturers position their own salespeople in retail outlets. Those firms better hope consumers don't wise up

Sneaky Selling Can Backfire

What Did the Study Look At?

With conventional advertising yielding mixed results, firms have developed sneaky ways to get their products or services in front of prospective customers. Those of us who are media savvy can often spot the product placement embedded in our favourite television show or movie. Less obvious is the practice of some firms to place their own brand representatives or “ambassadors” in retail outlets to work alongside a store’s own salespeople. This allows them to explain or pitch their products directly to consumers. The brand advocates often look no different than the salespeople employed by the retailer, and may not go out of the way to make their affiliation clear.

The researchers look at this potentially deceptive sales tactic — which they term “native selling” — from the consumer’s point of view. They investigate whether consumers are aware of native selling, how they respond when they encounter it, and whether disclosing the tactic improves consumer reactions.

How Was the Study Designed?

The researchers conducted two experiments. In both, they manipulated disclosure of native selling tactics by using name tags with different information about the salesperson’s background. In the first experiment, an online survey in Germany, 117 participants were asked to imagine being in a consumer electronics store, looking to purchase a coffee maker. The researchers focused on participants’ reactions toward the different types of disclosure and analysed whether name tags make consumers aware of native selling.

The second experiment involved 210 undergraduate students at a Canadian university. They were presented with the same scenario: some were told that the sales representative worked for the manufacturer rather than the store while others were not. In this test, researchers teased out the underlying processes behind the subjects’ reactions.

What Did The Study Find?

  • Native selling leads to more negative attitudes towards the store and brand and reduced purchase intentions. This effect is largely attributed to consumers’ perception of the persuasion tactic as deceptive.
  • Consumers almost never suspect the tactic when it is not disclosed.
  • Explicit disclosure of the brand affiliation is not sufficient for consumers to be aware of the salesperson’s background. Only 56 percent of study participants recalled the brand from the name tag when it was placed in a realistic sales setting.
  • Consumers react in the same way to both honest disclosure (with a brand name tag) and dishonest disclosure (with a name tag that indicates the sales rep is affiliated with the store). In both cases, consumers feel deceived.

What Do I Need to Know?

The good news, if you’re a firm that dabbles in native selling, is that consumers are generally unaware of the tactic until they’re told of it directly.

The bad news is that, once made aware via social networks or news accounts, consumers have little time for native selling. They feel it is a morally unacceptable tactic, whether the brand salesperson is clearly identified or not. “Firms need to account for such reactions when assessing the viability of such tactics,” the researchers write.

They suggest that consumers react to native selling “for reasons that go beyond just perceiving an ulterior motive. Specifically, we suggest that consumers perceive native selling as an attempt to hide an ulterior motive.”

To make native selling more evident, the researchers recommend that the brand salesperson’s background be disclosed more prominently, perhaps by using different colours of clothing, posting large signs, or presenting oral information upfront.

Remember, though, that the researchers found no evidence that an honest name tag resulted in better consumer perceptions than did a dishonest one.


Title: “When Brand Representatives Act as Sales Associates: Mechanisms and Effects of Native Selling and its Disclosure

Authors: Johanna Held, Maximilian Stieler, and Claas Christian Germelmann (all University of Bayreuth) and Laurence Ashworth (Smith School of Business, Queen’s University)

PublishedMarketing ZFP – Journal of Research and Management (vol. 39 no. 1, 2017, 44–57)

Alan Morantz