Ron Shachar, Dean, Arison School of Business, IDC Herzilya
Many brands are valued by consumers not only for their functional attributes, but also for the identity that consumers can project on themselves by consuming the brand.
For example certain brands communicate that their user is gay (e.g. Mazda Miata). Given this, firms may be interested in creating self-expressive (identity) attributes of their products, and advertising is an important vehicle in this respect.
Here I encourage marketers to show greater restrain in their use of advertising for this purpose and suggest that in some conditions such restrain might be necessary in order to build strong identity brands.
Let’s start with the fundamentals. Like other brands, identity brands should be considered as an association the consumer has with respect the firm or its product. However, unlike other brands for which the association is about the product (for example, “best value” when it comes to Walmart), identity brand are associated with the personality of their users. For example, honesty with Honest Tea, environmentally conscious with Seventh Generation, liberalism with chemistry.com, and creativity with Apple.
As these examples illustrate the personality of an identity brand is determined by the composition of its users. If none of my creative friends is using a PC, it would be difficult for me to associate “creativity” with it and it does not matter what will Microsoft say in its ads. I like to use colors when I think about identity brand and their consumers. Thus, for example, if a specific brand has only two types of consumers, say blue and red, then its color is going to be a composition of the two – i.e. magenta – and its exact tone would depend on the proportion of each group.
But when a new brand is being introduced consumers do not know yet what the composition of its users would be. At this point, firms tend to use advertising message and tone as a brush in order to paint the new brand with a specific color. An example I like in this context is the 1999 commercial “When You’re Young, You’re Gold” by Abercrombie and Fitch. However, such a brush is quite ineffective as compared with other tools marketers have and especially as compared with the potential productive role that consumers can play.
To illustrate this, let’s consider the potential value of these two alternatives starting with consumers. Given that the eventual brand identity is determined by the composition of its users, the personality of the initial consumers can be quite telling. Say that you consider buying a house in a new neighborhood (note: a neighborhood is an identity brand). You will certainly ask the relator who already bought a house in this area, and in various cases will even try to meet these initial buyers. In the past, we have learned the identity of the initial consumers usually by observing their usage (for example, by seeing who are the common drivers of Mini Cooper). Today, consumers’ communication is flourishing – consumers are uploading user-generated ads to YouTube, tweeting on their most recent purchasing and posting photos of themselves with their brands on Facebook. They have the means to communicate about their brands, and firms (as explained below) should make sure that they also have the motivation to do so.
While consumers’ communications is clearly the most credible and effective mechanism to build identity brands, some tools at the disposal of the firms can play a positive secondary role. First, by choosing the functional attributes of the product the firms define the set of potential identities the brand might have. For example, it would be hard to attach a “green” identity to a Hammer. Second, firms’ behavior is frequently used by consumers as a signal of the potential identity. For example, the first consumers of iPod shuffle found the following instructions in the product page “Do not eat iPod shuffle” (btw: in UK it read “Do not chew iPod shuffle”). Such wacky behavior is certainly projecting an identity on the product directly and also indirectly by attracting certain types of consumers. Finally, firms’ media selection (i.e., targeting strategy) is also informative either due to the personality of the outlet and its users (e.g. “The Huffington Post” and its liberal leaning audience) or since it have direct implications on the personality of the firm. For example, when Snapple sponsors events it does not pick standard ones such as the US Open, but rather quite unique such as Cherry spitting or yo-yo tossing that project a clear identity.
Unlike these marketing tools, that can play a positive secondary role in building a strong identity brand, advertising tone and message can actually hurt. This goes beyond the standard concern about the lack of credibility of advertising – that is even more severe in the case of identity brands because truth-in-advertising regulations do not apply to image advertising.
The main damage that advertising tone and message can do is by diminishing the motivation of consumers to communicate. Identity brands are similar to sports teams and political parties as a vehicle for self-expression. Consumers are eager not only to use the brand for self-expression but also to serve as its representatives and guardians. Such enthusiasm is the highest when it feels that they are the real owners of the brand. Image advertising – i.e., advertising in which the firm is holding the brush and try to determine the “real color” of the brand – can undermine such ownership feeling, and thus weaken consumers’ communications. Furthermore, such ads can demoralize another motivation consumers have to engage in word-of-mouth on a brand – their desire to express their uniqueness. We usually think that by using image advertising the firm is providing the consumers with ground and stimulation for word-of-mouth. While this is still true for some “old generation” consumers, it is generally untrue anymore for the “new generation” ones – they want to own the brand and to use it as an authentic expression of their identity. Image advertising is spoiling such authenticity.
There is another mechanism throughout which image advertising can diminish the effectiveness of consumers’ communications in building a strong identity brand – it can homogenize the initial consumers too much so that the consumer communication is one sided and thus uninformative (see more on this point in my forthcoming paper in Marketing Science with Dmitri Kuksov and Kangkang Wang).
The role of identity brands is expected to strengthen by 2020 for various reasons not discussed here such as the rising unsatisfied need for self-expression, the growing involvement of consumers with their brands and the marketing advantages of such brands over other brands. To succeed in such a world, firms should show greater restrain when it comes to the tone and message of their ads. They should put their trust in their consumers (i.e. their actions and communications) and their own actions (i.e., functional attributes, behavior and media selection) rather in what their ads say. As Lao Tzu said: “Silence is a source of great strength.”
 Notice that I do not mention sources of information such as third party communications (e.g. government agencies and news media). While such sources can be very relevant when it comes to the functional attributes of a product (e.g. automobile safely), they are not so relevant with respect to the likely personality of a product.