Social Identities – Why do they matter?

Many a time organizations discover that their customers don’t do what they say they’ll do. They agree to certain things during a survey, but don’t quite go by it when their feedback has been implemented.


For e.g. When Electrolux was contemplating offering free washing machines and charging customers by the wash, consumers welcomed the idea. But when a trial was run in Sweden, the response was poor causing the project to be shelved.


While many marketers assume that is the nature of experiments, there’s another angle to it – social identity.


Social identities are important for marketers because they guide people’s behaviors which will bolster and support the group they associate with. There’s a reason why successful athletes, or chief executives buy similar cars, frequent similar clubs, read similar magazines… so on and so forth. And it’s quite a challenge to uncover this social identity through surveys.


Hence, another plausible explanation for Electrolux’s failed experiment may be that the target consumers didn’t want to be perceived as someone who couldn’t afford a washing machine.


How Social Identities Shift

Everyone has a certain image of themselves – our self-concept. A social identity is the part of our self-concept that we derive from our perceived membership in a group. Our social identity helps us understand how to act in a specific context to stand apart from the crowd, and assume a certain status. Vey often our social identity depends on who’s around us or what’s being told to us.


Managing Social Identities

If social identity shapes decisions, then a marketing strategy should encourage customers to associate with an identity that pushes them towards interactions with the brand – such as visiting a website, going into a store, buying the product or service or getting more value from it. This helps in spreading a positive word-of-mouth, and helping designing a better product.


In order to aptly manage consumer social identities, companies should shift their focus from an individual’s attitudes to his/her social self. Consequently, it becomes easier to see what identities the consumer might be selecting at the moment he or she encounters a brand.


Interviews and other research techniques will help you discover the various identities that might be influencing your target consumer’s decision, but not determine which identity was selected when. To find that out, it’s necessary to observe consumers over time. In some sectors insights into social context can be derived through careful analysis of social media postings. Another brilliant option is real-time experience tracking, a research approach wherein consumers are asked to report in by text message whenever they encounter a certain brand. (Better Customer Insights – in Real Time, HBR, September 2012.)


Once the range of possible social identities has been surfaced, the marketer’s strategy should be to achieve one of the following goals:


Boost the message

When consumers identify with a social group that has a well-defined, positive image, they tend to select products that most clearly broadcast membership in it.


Help customers associate better

In some cases, a company’s communications may inadvertently suggest that using the product will clash with behaviors required of members in a relevant social group. This can often be fixed by simply reframing the messaging.


Create a new goal for social identities

Social identities aren’t supported by just one behavior but by a collection of behaviors. Hence marketers can add a new behavior to the recognized set by suggesting a new goal to the group.


Adjust your message in line with your target audience’s social identify

Sometimes customers encounter a product when they’ve adopted a social identity that promotes behaviors at odds with a product’s value proposition. In such cases marketers should look for ways to trigger, or prime, a more constructive identity.


Create a new social identity

Creating new social identities, therefore, need not involve a big commitment. Marketers can inspire specific behaviors by quickly creating temporary groups with new and distinctive social identities by passing the baton to the customers. For e.g. Frito Lay’s Crash the Super Bowl contest, held since 2007, asking consumers to develop their own TV ads for Doritos and post them on a website. Doing so, not only engages consumers, but also instills a sense of pride and belonging – a new social identity! Marketers can use this strategy with new brands that have no previous customer relationships to draw on, or an established businesses and deep pockets.


It takes constant effort for a brand to ascertain the right audience, the right social identity and then fine tune the apt consumer interaction. But investing on the regular consumer interaction will definitely help a brand rub on to its consumers in the right way – enforcing brand value and customer loyalty. Now isn’t that what every marketer dreams of!!

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