Identity marketing can backfire

Identity marketing can be annoying when we are told what we like, but enjoy the sense of ownership and freedom in how we express our own identity and respond to our personal preferences. When a picky mom selects Jif peanut butter and sports fans who identify themselves as sports fans subscribe to Direct TV, identity marketing is working hard in the background.

What happens, though, when identity marketing advertising goes wrong? According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, we are less inclined to respond positively to identity marketing campaigns when our sense of ownership and freedom are threatened.

Geeta Menon from New York University, Amit Bhattacharjee from Dartmouth College, and Jonah Berger from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania wrote:

“While people may be drawn to brands that fit their identity, they are also more likely to desire a sense of ownership and freedom in how they express that identity. Identity marketing that explicitly links a person’s identity with a brand purchase may actually undermine that sense of freedom and backfire.”

Identity marketin
Many of us desire a sense of ownership and freedom in how we express that identity.

Their study is titled “When Identity Marketing Backfires: Consumer Agency in Identity Expression.”

Telling people what they like can backfire

Menon and colleagues conducted a series of five studies that looked at two different types of identity marketing:

  • Messages that simply referenced a person’s consumer identity.
  • Messages that explicitly linked their customer identity to the purchase of a brand.

The study volunteers were initially asked to answer questions regarding the importance of a given identity in their overall life. They then looked at an ad for a brand that appealed to that particular identity. They were then asked to rate their likelihood of buying a product from within that brand.

Explicit identity marketing messages can sometimes kill sales

The researchers found that explicit identity marketing messages were counterproductive with individuals who cared about a particular identity, i.e. the messages reduced their likelihood of buying the product.

The authors believe their study findings may help brands understand why some people react negatively to some brands deemed important in areas of their lives.

The researchers concluded:

“Contrary to the traditional thinking about identity marketing, our research shows that people who care deeply about an identity are not receptive to messages that explicitly communicate how a brand fits with their lifestyle.”

“In fact, to restore their sense of freedom, some people may avoid purchasing a product that otherwise appeals to them and fits with who they are.”

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