Managing Social Identity: Strategies for Creating Brand Identification and Community
Americus Reed II Mark Forehand
The Wharton School University of Washington
Americus Reed II is the Arthur Anderson Term Assistant Professor of Marketing, The Wharton School, Philadelphia, PA 19104; phone: (215) 898-0651, fax: (215) 898-2534, email: firstname.lastname@example.org Mark Forehand is Associate Professor of Marketing, University of Washington Business School, Seattle, WA 98195; phone: (206) 685-1955, fax: (206) 685-9392, email: email@example.com Both authors contributed equally to this article. Order of authorship is reverse alphabetical. The authors would like to thank Joel Cohen, George Day, Rich Lutz, Barry Schlenker, David Reibstein and Alan Sawyer for comments on a draft.
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Managing Social Identity: Strategies for Creating Brand Identification and Community
Abstract Given that a consumer’s sense of self often influences consumption choices, understanding the nature of consumer social identity is critical to marketing practitioners and advocates alike. Building from sixty years of self-concept, functional attitude theory, social cognition and social identity research, this article develops a comprehensive framework of how brands move beyond being a collection of features and become deeply meaningful symbols to specific consumer segments. The framework conceptualizes how the development of consumers’ social identification with specific groups, products, and brands develops and influences reactions to marketing stimuli. The last part of the paper translates these process insights into a strategic marketing plan for creating, monitoring and managing links between a brand and a consumer social identity.
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We are not one person. There is no ‘I am,’ but many ‘I's’ coming from numerous places within us.”
- George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866-1949)
Scholars have pointed out that the marketing field has long abandoned a production-oriented approach to embrace an emphasis on individual consumer wants and needs (cf. Wilke & Moore, 2004). This emphasis has evolved into the cornerstone of modern marketing—the strategic division of the consumer population into distinct segments that can each be served by a unique marketing mix. Useful segmentation schemes divide consumers on the basis of an important marketer-defined characteristic (e.g., a common attribute preference, usage pattern, psychological motivation, or consumption-linked demographic factor). By developing and promoting segment-specific products and services, marketers create an opportunity for consumers to affiliate on the basis of shared consumption and thereby develop consumption communities. Taken together, these processes lead consumers to categorize themselves and others on the basis of product usage (or preference) and to personally identify with particular brands or products.
The potential bases of consumer self-categorization are nearly limitless (Bolton and Reed, 2004). Some of these categorical bases are relatively stable (e.g., mother, daughter, friend, African-American, etc.) while others may be more transitory (e.g., Republican, athlete, Mac-user etc.). Although consumers can potentially self-identify with (or in opposition to) every possible social category, not all social categories receive significant attention from the consumer (Kihlstrom 1992). Consumers are likely to only attend to those social categories that are especially self-relevant and it is these self-relevant social categories that constitute a consumer’s social identity.
A fundamental premise of social identity that bridges marketing and psychology is that consumers are attracted to products and brands that are linked to their social identity (Forehand,
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Deshpande, and Reed 2002; Stayman and Deshpande 1989). This linkage may come about because the brand or product symbolizes the consumer’s own personality traits (Aaker 1997), reflects a desirable self-image, or embodies the “type” of person that the consumer aspires to think, feel and be like (Belk, Bahn and Mayer 1982; cf. Levy 1959). In these situations, the consumer’s social identity motivates her to form, hold, and express social identity-oriented beliefs and more importantly, to select (avoid) constellations of products and services that reinforce the desired (undesired) social identity (Shavitt 1990; Katz 1960; Smith, Bruner and White 1956; Forehand, Perkins, and Reed 2004).
The power of symbolic, social identity-based preferences is often reflected in marketing practice and in academic research. In an attempt to leverage the power of such affiliation, marketers often position brands and products to reflect a particular social identity-oriented lifestyle and thereby hope to prompt more favorable judgments from consumers who possess that social identity (Reed 2002, see also Reed, 2004).1 To position brands around a social identity, persuasive communications often adopt a perspective shared by those who possess the social identity, utilize actors or endorsers who are exemplars of that social identity, or develop other techniques that can create a psychological connection between a social identity and the brand. Academic research has suggested that such social identity-based positioning techniques are indeed influential. For example, social identity has been found to influence a wide variety of consumer behaviors and attitudes including spokesperson response (Deshpandé and Stayman 1994), advertising response (Forehand and Deshpandé 2001; Grier and Deshpandé 2001; Meyers-Levy 1988), food consumption (O' Guinn and Meyer 1984; Stayman and Deshpandé 1989; Wallendorf and Reilly, 1983; Wooten 1995), media usage (Saegert, Hoover and Hilger 1985), brand loyalty (Deshpandé, Hoyer and Donthu 1986), and information processing tendencies (Meyers-Levy and Sternthal 1991). This body of research suggests that social identification can lead consumers to link products to particular social identities and even to form
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impressions of consumers who use particular kinds of products (Kleine, et. al 1993; Shavitt, Lowrey and Han 1992; Shavitt and Nelson 2000).
THREE GOALS OF THIS ARTICLE
The notion that a consumer’s sense of who they are should relate to what they buy is a seductively simple premise. Given the intuitive link between identification and consumption, academics and practitioners have sought out the processes by which great symbolic brands are created (e.g., Harley Davidson, Nike, Starbucks, etc.). There are many anecdotal explanations that suggest the effectiveness of what has been referred to as Cult Marketing (Wind, 2005). But such post-hoc explanations provide little import for managers who want to successfully create or reposition a brand to transcend functional features into a deeply symbolic social identity oriented lifestyle. Is it just serendipity, or can it be managed?
The first goal of this project is to more fully articulate the concept of social identity. As stated earlier, a social identity is defined as a self-relevant social category. When a social category is self-relevant, an individual’s beliefs about the social category become connected to the self and are organized into a knowledge structure called a self-schema (Markus 1977). The activation of these self-schemas is variable such that only a subset of one’s self-schemas is active at any given time. The self-schemas that are active comprise the working self-concept, a construct that serves as a filter for perception and action (Markus and Ruvulo 1989). For example, a consumer’s professional identity as a businessperson, engineer, or entrepreneur may be top of mind and important in a work setting; a consumer’s identity as a parent or spouse may move to the forefront at home; and a consumer’s identity as a sports fan or outdoor enthusiast may take precedent on the weekends. Identities can be thought of as “hats” that consumers put on and take off (Reed and Bolton, 2005).
In James’ (1890) conceptualization of ‘the social self,’ it is argued that every individual has as many identities or social selves as he or she has important others whose opinion matters.
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Since a consumer may adopt many different social identities as part of their overall self concept, the second goal of the project is to advance and articulate a model that can describe both when a social identity will be an active component of the working self-concept and also when a social identity will influence consumer judgment and behavior. In short, this model proposes that a social identity becomes an active component of the working self-concept when it is momentarily accessible. When a social identity reaches the requisite level of accessibility it may then influence judgment provided that the identity is also a diagnostic cue in an evaluation (Feldman and Lynch 1988). Using past research on social identity in marketing and psychology as a guide, we identify a host of marketing related factors that influence both the accessibility process and the diagnosticity process. 2
The third and perhaps most critical goal of this project is to translate this basic model into managerial prescriptions that can guide the development of marketing strategy. These prescriptions inform many strategic decisions including the selection of bases for segmentation, the positioning of products to increase ego-involvement, the creation of a unique brand identity, and the development of marketing communications that garner consumer attention and increase persuasiveness. We pay particular attention to specific marketing outcomes that are intended to foster the link between a consumer social identity and a brand.
SOCIAL IDENTITY DRIVEN JUDGMENT: DEFINITIONS AND ASSUMPTIONS
Defining the construct of Social Identity. Our framework starts with the premise that although a consumer’s sense of self can be developed from a wide range of possible social identities (SI), only a subset of them will influence the consumer in any given situation or context (Markus and Ruvolo 1989; Markus and Nurius 1987; Markus and Kunda 1986; McGregor and Little 1998; McGuire, McGuire and Winton 1979). As a result, it is essential that marketers identify the factors that increase the accessibility of various SIs and increase the diagnostic value of those SIs to various judgments and consumption behaviors. Accessibility and diagnosticity become even more important
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when considering the full range of SIs that can be part of a brand’s meaning or that can otherwise influence consumption. A brief (but not fully inclusive) sampling of possible SIs includes objective membership groups (e.g., gender), culturally determined membership groups (e.g. ethnicity and religion), abstracted role ideals (e.g. mother), groups premised on association with a known individual (e.g., a graduate advisor), or even with an unknown individual (e.g., Tiger Woods) (Deaux, Reid, Mizrahi and Ethier 1995). The conceptual underpinnings of this typology are found in a wide range of disciplines including personality theory (Rosenberg and Gara 1985), self-concept and identity (Erikson 1964; Sirgy 1982), symbolic interactionism (Goffman 1959; Mead 1934), impression management (Schlenker 1980), social cognition (Kilhstrom and Cantor 1986), and social identity/social categorization theory (Tajfel 1959; Tajfel and Turner 1979; Turner, Hogg, Oaks, Reicher and Wetherell 1987). To provide a more comprehensive sense of the types of SIs that may be relevant to effective marketing, figure A-1 provides a typology of explicit examples.
for consumers who wish to reinforce their connection to similar real or imagined others and create
separation from dissimilar real or imagined others (Smith et. al 1956, page 42). Social identity
facilitates this adjustment by directing the consumer to specific beliefs and behaviors that signal
identification externally to society and internally to the self. In more recent scholarly discussions, the
social adjustment function has evolved into the social identity function (Shavitt 1990). The social identity
function argues that identity-based attitudes and judgments not only help consumers classify
themselves but also may become the embodiment of a unique social classification or reference group
(Nelson, Shavitt, Schennum and Barkmeier 1997; Shavitt 1990, 1989; Shavitt and Nelson 2000). For
example, a strong association of the self with “American” encourages individuals to hold attitudes
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regarding American concepts such as the U.S. flag or other patriotic symbols and beliefs. Over time, these attitudes not only result from shared group beliefs, but actually come to embody group membership itself. In that regard, a consumer who possesses an “American” SI can use evaluative content —i.e., what they believe it means to be “American”—to facilitate product choices that will further support and reinforce the SI (e.g. purchasing a domestic automobile or avoiding French brie). This process is likely to result in a collectively anchored preference or attitude that is formed via identification processes (Kelman 1958) and is held, expressed or used as a guide for behavior in order to establish, maintain or even communicate that SI to others (cf. Shavitt 1990). In fact, these kind of identity-based judgments, attitudes and beliefs are unsurprisingly quite resistant to counter-persuasion (Bolton and Reed, 2004) and research suggests that this is due to the fact that such beliefs are perceived as having social reality in that they exist within a social network of others with similar views (Visser and Mirabile, 2004).
Necessary Conditions for Social Identity Expression. Building from this motivational conception of SI, our framework describes the factors that influence how a given SI becomes an active component of the working self-concept and how this activated concept then influences attitude, judgment formation and purchase behavior. Although a wide variety of factors affect these processes, each factor influences one of the framework’s two primary conditions: accessibility or diagnosticity. Figure A-2 depicts the model.
Insert Figure A-2 about here
Before discussing the implications of this framework for marketing practice, it is vital that
the key elements of the framework be carefully defined and illustrated. Let us begin with
accessibility. An accessible SI is momentarily salient to the consumer. This operationalization draws
a clear contrast between accessibility and availability—all SIs are available to a consumer, but their
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availability does not necessarily imply that they are accessible at a given moment. Rather, the accessibility of an identity is temporal and is influenced by a host of internal and external variables that may be influenced by marketing efforts. As we will describe in more detail below, the consumer’s social milieu, media environment, and personal disposition all influence which specific SIs are salient at any specific point in time (Forehand et. al, 2002). As a result, SI accessibility really resides on a continuum. When the accessibility increases to the point that the SI is an active component of the consumer’s working self-concept, then the SI is much more likely to influence judgments, decisions, and behaviors (Aaker 1999; Aaker and Schmitt 2001; Forehand and Deshpandé 2001; Forehand, et. al, 2002). In turn, the activation of a particular SI within the working self-concept often prompts individuals to categorize themselves along SI-oriented criteria (Turner and Oakes 1986). At that moment, the consumer is said to have adopted that particular SI—and that associated SI based frame of reference is likely to color their perceptions, judgments and behaviors. Although consumers can consciously assess their relative similarity or dissimilarity with other real and imagined consumers, a great deal of this self-categorization occurs without conscious processing (Eiser and Sabine 2001; cf. Stapel and Koomen 2000). As a result, an active SI in the working self-concept is best thought of as filter that influences perception regardless of whether the individual is aware of its activation or presence.
A second key construct in the framework is diagnosticity. Diagnosticity is defined as the degree to which a SI could direct judgment in a particular domain. Social identity diagnosticity is dependent on two interrelated ideas: how relevant the SI is to the domain of evaluation (e.g. an “athlete” SI would be relevant to evaluating athletic shoes, but is unlikely to be relevant to evaluating kitchen appliances) and the degree to which SI-based processing allows a consumer to discriminate between options (e.g. an “athlete” social identity might help discriminate between a pair of Nike
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shoes and a pair of Keds, but may not help discriminate between a pair of Nike shoes and a pair of
The combinatorial influence of accessibility and diagnosticity is summarized in the following
Proposition 1: Social identification leads to judgment formation when a consumer a) accesses the evaluative content of a SI and b) maps its relevance to a brand or behavior.
Moving beyond this basic proposition, it is important to identify the precursors to an SI’s
accessibility and diagnosticity and to discuss the influence of marketing strategy on these factors. In
general, a social identity is likely to influence evaluation to the extent the social identity is 1) salient,
2) self-important, 3) connected to an aspirational or “ideal” self-conception (or separated from a
disliked or “avoided” self-conception), 4) relevant to the brand, and 5) relevant in the specific brand
context at hand. In the next section, each of these precursors to social identity-based evaluation is
discussed in more detail.
PRECURSORS TO SOCIAL IDENTITY ACCESSIBILITY & DIAGNOSTICITY Determinants of Social Identity Accessibility
Affecting SI Accessibility with Identity Cues. Research has found that the salience of a SI can be increased by a myriad of stimulus cues in the external environment. These stimulus cues include reference group symbols (Cialdini, Borden, Thorne, Walker, Freeman and Sloan 1976; Smith and Mackie, 1995), symbols related to out-groups (Wilder and Shapiro 1984) out-group members themselves (Marques, Yzerbyt and Rijsman 1988), and even visual images and words (Hong, Morris, Chiu and Martínez 1999; Chatman and von Hippel 2001; Forehand and Deshpandé 2001, Forehand, et. al 2002). For example, the attribution styles of “multicultural” Asian students in Hong Kong became more “Eastern” if the students were first exposed to Chinese cultural icons such as a Chinese Dragon, The Great Wall and more “Western” if the students were first exposed to American cultural icons such as the United States Flag or Superman (Hong, et al. 1999). These
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effects are argued to occur because the icons act as cues that increase awareness of one SI over others (Hong et al. 1999, Wyer and Srull 1986).
Marketing communications contain many identity cues and these cues are often embedded in brand logos and symbols, taglines, spokespeople, and other persuasive content. For example, visual images embedded in advertising can prime identity accessibility to the extent that the images have been previously linked to the social identity. By increasing identity accessibility, the visual images can influence evaluation of subsequently viewed advertising that targets that identity (Forehand & Deshpandé, 2001; Forehand et al. 2002). Marketers can try to alter the accessibility of particular SIs by strategically managing how consumers are exposed to these kinds of symbols. We will describe this strategic issue in more managerial detail in the second half of this article.
Affecting SI Accessibility with Consumption Contexts. A second marketing relevant aspect that may influence salience is the extent to which the social environment will highlight a particular basis for social identification. McGuire, McGuire, Child and Fujioka (1978) proposed that particular group memberships are salient to an individual to the extent that the individual’s membership in that group is “distinctive” in the social environment. For example, McGuire, et. al (1979) asked grade school children to talk for a few minutes about themselves. Results showed that girls from households where their gender was in the minority (majority) were more (less) likely to mention gender in their spontaneous self-descriptions. A Similar study found that informal self-descriptions were affected by the salience of ethnic identity of children (McGuire, et. al 1978).
In consumption contexts, the composition of the social environment may directly influence product choice and media response (Stayman and Deshpandé, 1994; Forehand and Deshpandé, 2001; Grier and Deshpandé, 2001, Forehand, et. al 2002). For example, the self-conception of an African American man in a grocery store full of Caucasian consumers will differ markedly if he finds himself instead in a grocery store full of African American women. In the first situation, his ethnic
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identity is salient and this may cause him to approach (or avoid) ethnic-associated products (e.g.
Ebony magazine) depending on their social desirability. In the second situation, his gender identity is
salient and this may have corresponding effects on response to gender-associated products (e.g. GQ
Proposition 2: As a SI becomes more salient due to the social situation or contextual primes, the accessibility of the SI increases and evaluative content linked to the SI is therefore more likely to influence consumer judgment.
The Influence of Social Identity Self-importance on Accessibility. SI accessibility is also influenced by the
degree to which the SI is personally significant, meaningful and highly important to how a consumer
views him or herself (Charters and Newcomb, 1958; McGuire et. al, 1979; Bem 1981; see also
Schmitt, Leclerc and Dube-Rioux 1988). A consumer may be drawn to a SI for various motivations.
At one extreme, the self-importance of a SI may manifest as an impression motivated and temporary
public standpoint (Schlenker, 1985). At another extreme, the social identity may serve as a
"phenomenological lens" that deeply engulfs the consumer as a powerful basis for self-definition. In
these cases, SIs are often “core” aspects of self-construal and are therefore chronically accessible and
likely to stimulate SI-based processing of the environment, even in the absence of social or
contextual cues (Markus and Nurius 1986). On the flip side, SIs that are weakly associated with the
self may not influence consumer perception regardless of how many social or contextual identity
cues are available.
Consider the following example. Two consumers, Alan and Rich, both think of themselves
as “athletes.” Alan is a former high school track star who has moved on to other things. He is now a
weekend-warrior-type, playing the occasional game of tennis to stay in shape. In general, he tries to
eat healthy. Rich on the other hand is also a former high school track star, but is a former Olympic
silver medal winner in the 100 meters. He is a fierce competitor who anxiously awaits the
opportunity to reclaim his prior days of glory. Both of these consumers probably possess “athlete”
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as part of their sense of who they are. But because of past experience and future aspirations, Rich’s
social identity as an athlete might carry more personal consumer value to him. The fact that this SI is
much more engulfing to Rich may lead to a higher likelihood that many of Rich’s attitudes will be
based on the “athlete” aspect of his SI. Additionally, holding all else constant, Rich is probably more
likely to be more favorable toward an object (e.g., Nike brand shoes vs. Timberland) that is linked to