When does identity marketing go too far?

May 16, 2014

According to a new university study, identity marketing may reach consumers drawn to brands that fit their personality, but the approach can also be a turn off when a person’s sense of ownership and freedom is threatened.

The study, from professors at Dartmouth College, Wharton School and NYU, will appear in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

The researchers define identity marketing as marketing positioned around identities individuals possess. According to their statement, "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."

In the study, participants were asked to answer questions about the importance of a given identity in their overall life. They then saw an advertisement for a brand that appealed to that specific identity, according to a press release. The headline in the advertisement either referenced the identity or explicitly linked it to a brand. Their likelihood to purchase a product was then assessed.

The result: explicit identity marketing messages backfired with consumers who cared about the specific identity and resulted in a lower likelihood to purchase the product.

"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," the authors said.

In a popular study from last decade, Wharton researchers wrote that identity marketing can "transform a firm’s brands or offerings from a mere collection of products into a deeper constellation of self-embodied lifestyle symbols."

At the same time, their research found that consumers’ identities were complex, changing across an individual’s lifetime and differing depending on the situation. For instance, people often view themselves differently when they’re at work, home or enjoying their favorite outside activity.

As such, lifestyle-oriented marketing approaches built around consumers’ personality traits often are "too simplistic because consumers have many selves — some of which might appear to contradict each other — that cannot be easily compressed into such neat categories."

What are the pros and cons of identity marketing? What caution should marketers use when using this type of approach?

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16 Comments on "When does identity marketing go too far?"

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Chris Petersen, PhD.

Identity marketing is a lot like consumer segmentation … once a label is assigned, it suddenly becomes cast in stone. People don’t being “labeled.”

There is a great line in Tom Ryan’s article referencing the fact that lifestyle and identity marketing are “too simplistic because consumers have many selves.”

The “many selves” of today’s Omni-channel shopper shop in many ways. The key is understanding their “context” for how, where and when they are shopping. The most successful approach seems to be the retailers who create the flexibility for shoppers to have it their way, anywhere they shop.

Tom Redd

ID marketing is still in its infant stages. The customer changes as fast as the TV’s top shows’ episodes change (cable or streamed). Adding to that, as the customer becomes more and more complex and shifts from sharing to a more personal approach, marketing to them will get more complex. Many marketers will find that customers do not like being told over and over that this item/product/service is right for them.

Also, “self-embodied lifestyle symbols” comes from an old 2005 report and the consumer has leaped past this “lifestyle symbol” mode and into a more complex world of “lifestyle noise”…their “noise” across many non-integrated channels changes like the wind because each channel reflects a different part of their persona.

This is too heavy for a Friday – but think about your channel self. How are you different across channels? Twitter, FB, e-comm shopping, etc?

Happy Weekend!

Mohamed Amer

My key takeaway from this research is the increasingly important role of consumers’ sense of freedom in choosing their own action. This has taken place at the same time as the ongoing and empowering mainstreaming of social and mobility in the lives of consumers.

Therefore communication to consumers cannot be restrictive as to take away consumers’ agency, but needs to allow for consumers to imagine themselves in the lifestyle on their own terms. It’s similar to shifting from traditional one-way communication from brand to consumer to one where there is an ongoing dialogue between the brand and consumer.

Consumers desire control over their lives and freedom to make their own choices. Better to allow that process to evolve on consumers’ terms rather than limit and dictate a specific identity option.

Warren Thayer

Stolen identity marketing explicitly adheres to cognitive dissonance and not the orbits of self-embodied Facebook advertisements for brand consciousness. Accordingly, the unconscious lifestyle assemblages in transformed brand notations differ inversely to the Cato phenomenon. This, accompanied by further dialectical research, should greatly increase sales of beans at half-loaded margins.

Ryan Mathews

Identities are fluid and — in an age of social media — often artifacts rather than distillations of actual character.

The pro argument runs something like, “The more you can identify with a person’s core values the more you ought to be able to sell them.” The con is not everyone likes commercial intrusion or appreciates being lumped into a categorization they belong in but don’t like.

There seems — at this point — more ways to fail with this approach than here are to succeed.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Marketers need to be cautious about creating identity segments among their consumers. Because of different lifestyles, values, circumstances, and role, consumers have a complex identity. Simplifying a complex identity to just one topic can cause negative as well as positive reactions. One-issue identities are not a good choice for creating marketing messages.

Shep Hyken

As with any type of marketing that is direct to the customer, you have to strike a balance between too much and not enough. Everyone may have different tolerances. However, marketing to someone that is identified as part of a group or has a specific interest may have a great tolerance for frequency.

A while back, Target asked me what my preferences for marketing were; what was I interested in, how often I wanted to hear from them (via email), etc. That’s a start.

I’m a St. Louis Blues fan. I don’t mind getting my messages from the Blues, that seem to come almost every day or two. However, I’ll unsubscribe to a store who sends me messages just once a week.

It’s all about balance.

George-Marie Glover
George-Marie Glover
3 years 4 months ago

Most consumers are capable of determining for themselves what products fit into their lifestyles. They don’t need to be pigeon-holed.

James Tenser

A brand that associates too tightly with a contrived consumer identity risks losing relevance as its targets’ interests, activities and priorities shape-shift.

While it is generally desirable for a brand to stand for something, it is human nature for shoppers to think of themselves as unique and immune to manipulation. Nobody likes being pressed into a mold.

A brand that discovers it possesses a natural identity (think Harley-Davidson or a major-league sports team) may find a path to enduring emotional loyalty. But this is a formula for a lucky few, I think.

Cathy Hotka

Retailers are keenly interested in defining “the creepiness factor” when making personalized offers. (And they increasingly believe that meaningful personalized offers are the future.) The dividing line seems to be the customer’s overt approval of the practice. Without it, all you have is spam.

That said, retailers are working hard to determine how best to leverage past purchases to suggest future ones; and they think customers will appreciate that, and support them.

Li McClelland
Li McClelland
3 years 4 months ago

I think that use of social media and digital marketing have shown up some faults and faulty thinking with respect to the performance of identity marketing that have probably always been there — but are so much more obvious to us and invasive to consumers, now.

Lee Kent

We all think that we are far too complicated to be put in a box! ‘Nuff said…and that’s my 2 cents!

Ralph Jacobson

I think a ton more research needs to be conducted in this area. With many findings in different studies being contradictory, there is the opportunity to jump to conclusions prematurely. I believe there is a potential for the element of connecting with your audience that becomes what we hope “Identity Marketing” could be. The challenge is that too many marketing messes miss the mark with their audience.

We can all think of great brands that definitely connect with their loyal consumers’ identities, whether those brands are apparel, electronics, or beverages. Marketers should use caution, however, when trying to connect too closely and do the research of their targeted audience to a degree that helps ensure appropriateness. There are some great tools available today to help with this, by the way.

Doug Garnett

I agree this can backfire and fully resent marketers making assumptions about me based on data they have accumulated.

That said, I’m more concerned by the vast jump of logic required to believe that the “sports fan” subscribes to DirecTV because of an “identity.” Sports fans subscribe to DirecTV because it’s the only place to get the programming they want. Or, the jump in logic to suggest that Jif is selected because the woman is a “Picky Mom.” The majority of Jif sales come because it’s the taste/consistency her kids prefer, the fact it’s on sale/promo, or that it’s a brand habit.

It is my experience that vast sums of marketing dollars are wasted on this idea that we buy a brand because we identify with it. The truth we need to remain focused on is that we buy products – and the specific ones we choose are influenced by brand and the amount we pay is influenced by brand. But even with consumables mere identity is a small minority factor in purchase habit.

Naomi K. Shapiro
Naomi K. Shapiro
3 years 4 months ago

I’m most concerned about the second half of the summary, above. “…identity marketing may reach consumers drawn to brands that fit their personality, but the approach can also be a turnoff when a person’s sense of ownership and freedom is threatened.” I want the marketers to respect my integrity and independence and not bombard me with ads for a trip I booked and made 3 months ago, or think that because I choose Colgate toothpaste, I’m “stuck” on that brand. I find it all to be invasive, bothersome, erroneous, and egregious, but most of all, invasive and bothersome — and erroneous… and egregious… Did I just repeat myself? Meant to.

Alexander Rink
3 years 3 months ago

Each shopper is a unique individual. As much as they may share some common traits, or even identities, these are likely to be highly nuanced. It certainly pays to segment and strive to personalize messages, but trying too hard is likely to appear insincere and inauthentic.


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