Identity Marketing’s Dangerous Game

Amit Bhattacharjee uncovers the hidden perils of marketing on the basis of identity.

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Tuck visiting assistant professor Amit Bhattacharjee uncovers the hidden perils of marketing on the basis of identity.

Are you a Mac or a PC? Whatever the answer, the message behind the popular Apple advertisement that ran from 2006-2009 is obvious: if you are a cool, young, creative type, then you should buy a Mac. If you are stuffy, nerdy and out of touch, then you may be better off with a PC. The ad is one of the more notable examples of identity marketing, a strategy designed to reach consumers by appealing to their sense of who they are, or who they want to be. A large body of research has shown identity marketing to be effective, which is why the likes of Nike, Harley Davidson, Jeep, Starbucks, and many others have ridden it to success.

But is there a dark side to identity marketing? That’s the question Amit Bhattacharjee, a visiting assistant professor at Tuck, set out to answer in a paper published recently in the Journal of Consumer Research. In it, Bhattacharjee and co-authors Jonah Berger of Wharton and Geeta Menon of the Stern School of Business, describe a series of studies they performed, which were designed to explore the boundaries of identity marketing and determine when, and how, targeting consumers’ identity might do more harm than good.

As the authors make clear in their paper, identity marketing is a powerful tool because it plays to the fundamental human need for self-expression. The desire for self-expression, in turn, causes us to prefer products and behaviors that correspond to our identity. “For instance,” they write, “a serious athlete may prefer identity-relevant Gatorade over an otherwise similar brand like Vitaminwater, and an MBA student may subscribe to The Economist to feel more like a savvy businessperson.” Given this tendency, prior research has suggested that more explicit identity messages would function best, since they more clearly link brands to consumers’ needs for self-expression. But Bhattacharjee and his colleagues were skeptical of this assertion, because it ignores the equally important psychological need for agency, which is the capacity for self-determination. If identity marketing comes on too strong, they theorized, it could threaten consumers’ sense of agency in choosing the brand, wiping away the self-expressive meaning of this choice. This may cause consumers to reassert their free will by rebelling against the brand, in spite of it fitting them so well.

To test their theory, the authors separated identity marketing messages into two categories: more subtle “identity referencing” statements that simply invoke consumers’ identities (e.g., “DirecTV. All the sports you love in one place.”), and more forceful “identity defining” ones that explicitly describe a brand as the best means of identity expression (“If you call yourself a sports fan, you gotta have DirecTV!”).  They then put these different types of messages, including some they created to be otherwise similar, in front of managers and consumers to see how they reacted to each.

In a study using an unfamiliar brand of environmentally-friendly soap, the authors found that the managers preferred to reach green consumers with an explicit identity-defining message: “Charlie’s: The only good choice for green consumers.” But when the same message was presented to green consumers, it backfired. Survey respondents with a green identity showed an increased likelihood to purchase Charlie’s soap after seeing the identity-referencing message (“Charlie’s: A good choice for green consumers”), but they had the opposite reaction to the identity-defining message, which made them even less likely to purchase the product than seeing a neutral message that didn’t mention their identity (“Charlie’s: A good choice for consumers”). As the authors explain, “participants with a salient target identity were averse to messages that defined the terms of identity expression and thus avoided a brand even though it naturally appealed to them and fit their identity.” In other words, when the consumers felt the message was dictating an identity to them, they recoiled; they wanted to feel like they were acting on their own preferences, not being commanded to behave in a particular way.

Importantly, this was only true of green consumers. Neither the benefits of messages referencing identity nor the backlash against explicit messages were evident among those who cared about an unrelated identity.

For Bhattacharjee, the lesson for marketing managers from this research is that identity marketing requires a light touch. Messages that try too hard to create a certain image may make a brand seem less sincere or less authentic. With the ubiquity of social media, brand communications are being parsed and studied more than ever, and consumers are increasingly sophisticated in their ability to tell real from fake.

“My view is that identity marketing is a high risk, high reward scenario,” Bhattacharjee says. “If you do this and misfire, the consequences might be worse than if you had never tried at all.”

A. Bhattacharjee, J. Berger, and G. Menon, “When Identity Marketing Backfires: Consumer Agency in Identity Expression,” Journal of Consumer Research, August 2014.