Aligning Brands With Consumer Identity

Michael SolomonMarch 25, 20224 min

Products and services link to our feelings and behaviors. But just how tight are these linkages, and how important are they to marketers? The answers are 1. Really tight and 2. Really important.

Surprisingly, much of marketing theory and practice doesn’t fully acknowledge these connections. Sure, modern advertising tactics routinely paint an aspirational picture of what you could be like if you just bought Brand X. Still, there often feels like a disconnect between the positive images that creative directors create and the way that their bottom-line focused clients think about the real reasons we buy and consume.

For many of us (even for a lot of experienced marketers), there is a dichotomy between Me versus The Things I Buy. This is the case for several reasons including:

  1. We tend to focus on a product’s functional attributes (e.g., gas mileage) rather than its’ subjective benefits (e.g., impressing your friends with your new sports car)
  2. A simplistic (modernist) view of cause-and-effect tends to obscure the long-term psychological dimensions of brand ownership (e.g., asking a research subject about the likelihood of buying a new fragrance on a numerical scale is much different than probing about how that product acts as an “ally” in social interactions)
  3. Most assessments of brand meaning are highly mechanistic. They try to measure brand equity via simple scales — 1 don’t agree to 7 highly agree — that ask consumers to quantify their level of satisfaction with a brand’s performance. They don’t tap into the important nuances about the many ways a product or service links to a consumer’s identity.
  4. Until fairly recently, product choices weren’t as integral to self-identity as they are today. That’s because the traditional markers and guideposts people used for millennia were still robust. These include place of birth (and likely death), religion, and social standing and family lineage.
  5. Before the dawn of the postmodern era, many brand choices were preordained and offered relatively few options. For example, in the age of large, homogeneous market segments the brands that defined a social category also were fairly homogeneous. Thus an “organization man” of the 1950s or early 1960s didn’t have too much latitude in his clothing choices (the standard white shirt or perhaps a daring light blue), and the housewife of the same era relied on familiar “household brands” with huge market share to fill her pantry. Many choices were proscribed by societies that tolerated little deviation from a set pattern. Some cultures developed explicit rules (known as sumptuary laws) about the specific garments and even colors that certain social classes and occupations were allowed to display. These traditions live on today in Japanese style manuals that set out detailed instructions for dressing and how to address people of differing status.
  6. The very concept of a unique “self” that you express via your choices was somewhat alien in many cultures. Many Eastern cultures stress the importance of a collective self, where a person derives his or her identity in large measure from a social group. They tend to focus on an interdependent self, where we define our identities largely by our relationships with others. For example, a Confucian perspective stresses the importance of “face”: others’ perceptions of the self and maintaining one’s desired status in their eyes.

Brand Meaning And Brand Resonance

A deeper view of brand meaning takes us to why our possessions really matter. In fact, there are a multitude of dimensions that lead to what my colleagues and I call brand resonance. We mean by this term the extent to which a brand’s meaning reverberates with the user in a fundamental way. A resonant brand connects with you, because it helps you to express some aspect of your identity.

Here are a few examples of brand resonance dimensions.

Interdependency: Does my brand facilitate habits, rituals, and routines that entwine the brand’s meanings seamlessly into the consumer’s everyday life? Brand example: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream

Intimacy: Does my brand have “insiders” who know details of its history, including significant product development particulars, myths about product creators, and obscure “brand trivia” or facts? Brand example: Air Jordan trainers

Category resonance: Is my brand iconic within its category; do customers use it as a benchmark to compare other brands? Brand example: Harley-Davidson motorcycles

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Michael Solomon, author of The New Chameleons: Connecting with Consumers Who Defy Categorization 

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