Match Human and Product Brands for Greater Impact

Identity Marketing: Connect With Consumers by Understanding How They Define Themselves

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Personal identities define who we are to ourselves and one another. Comprising race, gender, physical traits, occupation, social groupings and even the person we think we are, they can be real or aspirational. We have multiple identities, and, of course, each one represents different choices in product consumption. Consumers use different brands because they help them express who they are or who they want to be to themselves and to others.
Brand Identity
Illustration: Isabelle Cardinal
If consumers identify with Prada and also identify with Michelob, Volvo, '24' character Jack Bauer, rock group the Killers and Doritos, marketers suddenly have a 'brand-identity chain.'


But consumers also define who they are with the media they choose, the "human brands" they consume -- the characters in TV shows, the anchors in news broadcasts, the actors in movies.

Resonating vs. reaching
In identity marketing, some aspect of a given brand connects with a target consumer's identity. Smart marketers will craft campaigns that leverage a consumer's personal identity as a basis for developing not just better-targeted product messages but better-targeted media messages as well. In this concept of identity marketing, marketers strategically match the advertised product to the media consumers consume.

This creates the opportunity for new forms of connection with consumers. A message placed in identity-friendly media will truly resonate with consumers as opposed to just reaching them.

Here's an example: If consumers identify with Prada and also identify with Michelob, Volvo, "24" character Jack Bauer, rock group the Killers and Doritos, marketers suddenly have a "brand-identity chain" -- a group of consumers who share similar identities as well as product and media consumption.

In identity marketing, in fact, anything in the media marketplace that contains symbols consumers might use in constructing their identities qualifies as a brand. That includes companies, services, and, most important, news and entertainment. The building blocks of news and entertainment -- personalities, TV programs, characters, sports teams, bands, channels, websites and so forth -- all are laden with symbols that invite connections with a consumer's identity. Whether it's a spoof of George Bush on YouTube, an episode of "24" on TV, the Barry Bonds controversy in the newspaper or Carrie Underwood singing "Wasted" on an iPod, consumers have many symbols to use as building blocks in constructing their identity. They are all human brands competing for identity attention with product brands. Unlike with product brands, where advertising has to craft an identity message that relates to consumers and the product, consumers instantly recognize an identity idea -- a connection -- in news and entertainment. People identify with the situations, aspirations and behavior embedded in entertainment and news. And when the identity connection idea isn't there, they don't "purchase" or "repurchase."

A new approach
In the Journal of Marketing, Matthew Thomson, assistant professor, Queens School of Business in Canada, emphasizes the importance of human brands to the media industry because of attachments they create. When a marketer understands the human brands with which its consumer identifies, it can begin to develop appropriate media plans that will include new forms of promotion and brand-identity chains.

Identity marketing forces a rethinking of how media planners approach media. Right now the meaning of media to the advertising industry is "reach and interrupt." This philosophy has created enormous dissatisfaction, and evidence suggests it is no longer working. A paradigm that is built on "reach and connect" might be the way forward.
Robert Maxwell is president of Chelsea Media, a research consulting firm. Previously he worked nearly 20 years at HBO as head of research. Mr. Maxwell is also an adjunct associate professor in the department of culture and communication at New York University.
Robert Maxwell is president of Chelsea Media, a research consulting firm. Previously he worked nearly 20 years at HBO as head of research. Mr. Maxwell is also an adjunct associate professor in the department of culture and communication at New York University.

Research shows that people use TV primarily for entertainment, information and identity needs. While there isn't similar research for the internet, one can safely speculate that similar findings would emerge; look no further than the growth of social networking and how it has turned ongoing identity construction into a business.

Popular media is similar to a mosh pit at a concert, except in the media mosh, consumers are rubbing up against many identity symbols. Some make sense to some consumers, and some don't. Marketers need to make sure their product brand and message are associated with identity-related human brands -- personalities, programs, bands, sporting teams and other product brands -- in the media mosh.

Creating chains of consumers
It's a dual challenge. To advertising creatives, the goal is to understand their consumer's identity construct. A target-market profile isn't complete without it. Their next step is then to develop a message that matches the product brand to that identity. The challenge to media planners is also to understand that identity construct and match that message, not indiscriminately in the media mosh, but in complementary media vehicles with which the consumer identifies and with which marketers can begin to create chains of consumers who purchase the product or should be purchasing based on their identity. For example, if creatives and media planners know the identity construct of Pepsi consumers, it's likely the advertising message is going to resonate with potential consumers. Media planners can then find media vehicles where that construct similarly exists in order to better connect with those consumers -- for example, they use BlackBerries and watch "The Office" and listen to U2. Knowing the identity construct of a product provides a common denominator between creative development and media planning that transcends traditional demographics and psychographics.

We're heading toward greater integration of messages with entertainment content. Simple product placement is probably the first step. Commercial revenue doesn't begin to support the production of quality sitcoms at $2 million an episode. However, it's likely consumers will trade up for the quality by accepting greater advertising placement if brand products are more integrated with identity-congruent human brands.

In the MIT Sloan Management Review, Americus Reed II and Lisa E. Bolton, assistant professors of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, talk about identity marketing being the next step in marketing's evolution. A benefit of that evolution would be a new way to profile customers. Another benefit is the ability to match product brands to human brands. It integrates creative and media planning, and can be especially helpful as a planning tool in linking consumers to emerging media platforms. Identity marketing has an ambitious vision, but it's a vision for our time.
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