OPINION7 February 2023

Harnessing social identity to connect brands to consumers

Behavioural science Media Opinion

Julian Adams reflects on how drawing on social identity can help marketers to challenge the status quo and connect with people in new ways.

Group of people stand in a circle connected by a long tangled piece of string

Social identity refers to our sense of self based on perceived membership of social groups. Belonging to different groups helps shape how we see ourselves and others in the social world and is important in supporting self-worth and esteem.

We belong to numerous groups including family, political party, football club, occupation, nationality, ethnicity and so on. Naturally, we don’t identify with all groups at the same time but move between groups at any given moment.

There is an implicit link between social identity and consumerism, ergo in post-modern society, consumption is not about the material worth of an object but about the symbols of identity associated with that object.

Intuitively, we assume that our consumption behaviour helps to establish and sustain a sense of individuality. However, in post-modern society, consumption is less about individualism and more about how we identify with our place in society and how we choose to project that identity. In other words, social identity is a determinant of consumption, a tool to present ourselves in the image of others.

It seems we seek to promote the group we identify with at the expense of ones we don’t. In essence, we seek to categorise the world in terms of the ‘in-group’ and the ‘out-group’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, marketeers have sought to leverage this dichotomy to connect brands with consumers. Specifically, marketeers use the knowledge of the out-group to promote the in-group, and in so doing create marketing campaigns that appeal to our sense of self.

For example, Spanish car manufacturer Seat ran the ‘Because them, us’ commercial in 2019, a call out to the target audience to reject the antiquated ways of the past and embrace a new enlightened future. Rather than following the well-trodden path of focusing on the virtues of the car, Seat looked to connect with a younger more progressive and liberal audience (the in-group).

The advert used imagery to highlight negative connotations of the older more conservative baby boomer generation (the out-group), including fox hunting, owning art and antiquated business practices. Each image was juxtaposed with more liberal versions and opposing statements that helped to distinguish the out-group from the in-group: because they did, we don’t, because they won’t, we will, because they own, we share, because they complicate, we simplify, because they judge, we embrace and because they look back, we look forward.

Another example is a McDonald’s 2017 coffee advert that spoofed the hipster coffee culture. The advert shows customers in artisan coffee shops struggling to deal with overly complicated and expensive coffee and compares this to the ease of ordering and the affordability of the McCafé range. In this instance, the ad is appealing to those who want a simpler and more affordable coffee (the in-group) and suggesting that those wanting a complicated and expensive coffee should go elsewhere (the out-group).

Both advertising examples demonstrate how brands appeal to our sense of self and create meaningful connections. These connections direct behaviour, whether that be visiting a website, going to a store, talking about a product, purchasing a product, using a service and so on. This necessitated a detailed understanding of the in-group and out-group.

This is not without its challenges as differences between groups are invariably nuanced and context specific. Moreover, marketeers have tended to subscribe to attitudinal based marketing at the detriment of understanding the social self. That said, with a skill and alacrity for understanding human behaviour, market research practitioners are ideally placed to rise to this challenge and demonstrate the value of leveraging social identity to connect brands to consumers.

In practice, no single question will reveal identity, as only by discussing both emotions and behaviours will it be possible to truly understand the nature of the social self.

Harnessing the power of social identity will empower marketeers to challenge the status quo and create new and imaginative ways for brands to connect to customers, that ultimately drive behavioural change. It’s worth acknowledging that our sense of self reflects deep-seated values, wants, desires and principles that tend not to change significantly over time. Thus, a brand that connects to consumers’ sense of self will enjoy long and lasting relationships that other brands can only dream of.

Julian Adams is head of custom research at Motif