Upcycling: How products with a story attract buyers


Turning an old car airbag into a backpack or pieces of truck tarp into shoulder bags – this is called upcycling. A study carried out at WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business) shows that the story behind a product can be an important incentive to buy. The previous identity of a product can make buyers think about the product’s history and create a sense of owning something unique.

Together with her team, Bernadette Kamleitner, professor at WU’s Institute for Marketing and Consumer Research, has conducted three field experiments and four controlled experiments. The research shows that demand for upcycled and recycled products increases if the origin of the products is emphasized.
Bernadette Kamleitner says, “Marketing specialists can help customers realize that repurposed products are special by emphasizing the products’ previous identities. This works even if it means telling customers that the products were made from trash.”

In contrast to conventional goods, recycled and upcycled products have a former and a current identity, for example when an airbag is turned into a backpack.  Even if these two identities differ radically in form and purpose, they’re still both embodied in the product. The prior identity of a repurposed product can tell a story of transformation in the product’s biography. This gives customers a chance to construct a narrative about the product. These stories can be an incentive to buy because they allow customers to feel special by using products with a unique story. 

The research results also indicate, however, that the strategy of emphasizing a product’s former identity must be very well crafted in the case of products whose prior history is clearly visible. 

The results of the study are summarized in a short research video.

1 Minute, 1 Paper:  Research in a nutshell

Video A Cinderella Story - 1 Minute, 1 Paper

A Cinderella Story - 1 Minute, 1…

Further “1 Minute, 1 Paper” videos are available on WU’s YouTube channel:

The publication

The study “A Cinderella Story: How Past Identity Salience Boosts Demand for Repurposed Products,” authored by Bernadette Kamleitner, Carina Thürridl, and Brett A. S. Martin, was published in the Journal of Marketing and is available here:

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