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Saturday, May 15, 2021

CEO Spotlight

Yes, We Are What We Buy: Consumers Who Defy the Line Between Brand and Identity

Way back in 1890, the famous psychologist William James wrote, “A man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his.” And that was before iPhones, Diesel jeans, and Teslas!

Clearly, products and services link to our feelings and behaviors. But just how tight are these linkages, and how important are they to marketers? Spoiler alert: The answers are 1) really tight and 2) really important.

Surprisingly, much of marketing theory and practice doesn’t fully acknowledge these connections. For many of us (and even for a lot of experienced marketers), there is an immutable dichotomy between Me versus The Things I Buy.

That neat and long-standing distinction is convenient but ready for the junk heap in today’s era of Postmodern Marketing, where the things we buy or aspire to buy play an outsized role in defining who we are. Now more than ever, we use an individual’s consumption behaviors to identify that person’s social identity, including our own! In addition to checking out a person’s clothes and grooming habits, we make inferences about personality based on their choice of leisure activities (e.g., squash versus bowling), food preferences (e.g., tofu and beans versus steak and potatoes), cars (Hemi pickup versus Prius) and home decorating choices (Shabby Chic versus Danish Modern). And research shows these inferences are pretty good; for example when people see pictures of a stranger’s living room, they are able to make surprisingly accurate guesses about the occupant’s personality.

So, even if you don’t believe that you are what you buy, rest assured that your neighbors do. That’s why it’s so crucial for brands to understand how they link to – or fail to link to – the social identities that their customers want to express. One way to define identity is “…any category label with which a consumer self-associates that is amenable to a clear picture of what a person in that category looks like, thinks, feels and does.” Some of these identities are pretty stable (e.g., mother, African American), whereas other identities are more temporary and likely to change (e.g., Libertarian, college student, Prius driver).

So, it’s not just about what a brand does, after all, in many categories consumers stubbornly believe that most competitors will do the job reasonably well. Instead, it’s about what a brand means. The extent to which we become brand loyal over time depends upon the nature and strength of the attachment we form to it. These relationships include love, unrequited love (we yearn for it but can’t have it), respect, and even fear or hate (“why is my computer out to get me?”). Researchers even report that after a “breakup” with a brand, people tend to develop strong negative feelings and will go to great lengths to discredit it, including bad-mouthing and even vandalism.

How do these consumer/brand relationships impact the way you run your business? To start (especially if you manage a B2C brand), ask yourself this question: “If my brand suddenly came to life as a person, who would that person be?” Then, try to flesh out your answer. If you struggle to do that, you may have a problem – especially if your customers also can’t answer this question.

Remember, we don’t just buy products and services. We buy stories. And when a brand story coincides with the type of identity we’re looking for, that’s when we’re hooked. This is because the brand resonates with us; it syncs with a personal or cultural meaning that is integral to who we are. There are numerous paths to brand resonance; here are a few. Is your brand following at least one of them? (A much longer list is available in a free “Brand Resonance Audit” you can download at www.michaelsolomon.com)

  1. Interdependency: Does my brand facilitate habits, rituals and routines that entwine the brand’s meanings seamlessly into the consumer’s everyday life? Brand example: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream
  2. Intimacy: Does my brand have “insiders” who know details of its history, including significant product development particulars, myths about product creators and obscure “brand trivia” or facts? Brand example: Air Jordan sneakers
  3. Category resonance: Is my brand iconic within its category? Do customers use it as a benchmark to compare other brands? Brand example: Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The tried-and-true approach to grouping and labeling consumers served us well for a long time. That’s because until fairly recently we didn’t see huge differences in consumption across fairly similar groups of people, especially when we control for income. As “tribes” waxed and waned, they were likely to include large swaths of the population. For example, Flower Children in the 1960s tuned in and dropped out, but because most were tuned in to the big record labels and magazines of the time, everyone’s sartorial rebellion looked pretty much the same. Are those your tie-dyed jeans or mine?

Fast forward to today, when we truly live in an era of market fragmentation. Just as our TV viewing options have expanded to thousands of channels today, the monolithic market segments of that time have decomposed into innumerable micro-segments. In the period from 2009 to 2015, for example, the total number of TV channels the European Union established grew by 49% from 3,615 TV channels to 5,370. The brand landscape looks much the same way.

The so-called postmodern consumer blithely travels from one micro-segment to another. The only constant we can count on from our new consumer chameleons is that they will adopt the coloration of many segments in the course of a decade, a year or perhaps even a day.

And the fusion of products with The Self continues unabated as new technologies encourage us to put products on, or in, our bodies. Here are a few examples:

  • Americans get more than nine million cosmetic surgical and nonsurgical procedures in a year. The most frequently performed surgical procedure is breast augmentation, which typically involves the integration of silicon or saline implants with the patient’s organic material.
  • More than four million Americans have an artificial knee.
  • Nike introduced its first sprinting prosthesis, called the Nike Sole, perhaps the first commercially scalable transformation of disabled athletes into “superabled” athletes.
  • More than 200,000 people now have cochlear implants that deliver sound from a microphone directly to the auditory nerve. Other neural implants recognize when epileptic seizures are about to occur and stimulate the brain to stop them. The wearables industry is launching a plethora of health-related sensors, such as shoes with a built-in GPS system that detects possible onset of Alzheimer’s by monitoring a person’s gait and contact lenses that measure blood sugar in a diabetic’s tears. A Japanese app even monitors when a person’s shirt is starting to smell from his perspiration and alerts the wearer it’s time to change!

The steady erosion of the boundary between The Self and Brands holds huge ramifications for marketing practice. For one, as I discuss in my book The New Chameleons: Connecting with Consumers Who Defy Categorization, tried-and-true approaches to mass-market segmentation are no longer as valuable when many customers today are proactively choosing a unique palette of brands to express their distinctive social identities. Rather than developing a fairly standard product/service and/or message to promote that offering that we hope will appeal to, say, “affluent women in their late 20s,” today it makes more sense to think of each person in that group as a “market-of-one.” She is today’s New Chameleon, who changes her identity constantly, and who (hopefully) looks to your brand’s story to help her tell her own. That cookie-cutter approach we’re so familiar with just won’t cut it today.

The moral: Our self-concept is firmly linked in multiple ways to our consumption choices. Marketers just don’t just sell products and services; they supply the vehicles we use to express our identities and to make sense of other people. There is a false dichotomy between our Selves and our possessions. The brands that understand this will succeed in a turbulent marketplace that offers consumers literally thousands of ways to express their unique identities.

We are what we buy, and we buy what we are.


Written by Michael R. Solomon. Have you read?
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Michael R. Solomon
Michael R. Solomon, Ph.D. is professor of marketing in the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph's University. He advises global clients in leading industries on marketing strategies to make them more consumer-centric. He is the author of several leading textbooks on marketing, consumer behavior, advertising and social media.

Books by Michael R. Solomon:
The New Chameleons: How to Connect with Consumers Who Defy Categorization (Kogan Page; 1st edition; February 23, 2021).

Michael R. Solomon is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.