Identity Theory and Marketing: Insights and Applications
Identity theory offers marketers a rich source of insights on how consumers relate to brands and products as both expressions of their unique selves and their affiliations with others.
Since its inception in the early 20th Century, much research on consumer behavior has been grounded in psychological theories of individual motivation and decision making. Not coincidentally, with the rise of the Internet and social media, theories that emphasize the role of networks and other social influences have come to the fore. One result has been a move away from what some have called the “monolithic self-concept” to a more nuanced notion that reflects not only enduring individual psychological characteristics but also more social and situational factors that shape expressions of identity.
In the Handbook of Research on Identity Theory in Marketing (Edward Elgar, 2019), Americus Reed II and Mark Forehand assemble contributions from dozens of academics on key aspects of identity that affect consumer behavior in the context of marketing and other activities. The editors define identity as “any category label to which a consumer self-associates either by choice or endowment.” That is, what is important for marketing is that the individual self-associate to a specific identity, whether assumed voluntarily or ascribed by others. As Reed and Forehand note, individuals have a collection of identities, and brands are meaning systems that can serve as markers of these identities (see Forehand, Reed and St. Clair, forthcoming; Reed and Forehand 2019; Reed and Forehand 2016; Reed, Forehand, Puntoni and Warlop 2012). Brands can thus be seen as “self-expressive extensions of consumers” (see Chernev and Gal, 2009).
Fundamental aspects of identity and marketing
Turning to academic research on identity and marketing, Reed and Forehand (2019) identify five unifying principles that organize their 31 chapters.
- Salience – Circumstances that make a given identity more salient for an individual spur identity-linked judgement and action (Chapter 1). The resulting salience can influence a variety of behaviors from luxury consumption (Chapter 4) to creative thinking (Chapter 5).
- Association – Products associated with a desired consumer identity frequently receive more positive evaluations and absorb other identity-content (see Chapter 7 and 8) and products associated with an undesired identity are often dismissed (Chapter 11). These associations affect consumer ownership perceptions (Chapter 9; Leung, et al, 2020), pursuit of self-enhancement (Chapter 10) and behavior in specific contexts such as healthcare (Mende, et al, 2017).
- Verification – Consumers actively monitor their identities and strategically use products to validate and fully enact desired identities. This leads to systematic compensatory consumption (Chapter 12), identity threat response (Chapter 13) and the use of mementos to reinforce one’s identity (Chapter 14). More broadly, these processes allow the consumer to associate with desired identity groups and dissociate with undesired identity groups (Malhotra, 2018).
- Conflict – In today’s connected world, individuals reduce conflict across multiple identities by managing their relative salience in different contexts (Chapter 21). The management of this overall identity complexity influences effects ranging from global cultural identity adoption (Chapter 22) to dyadic decision making (e.g. how couples decide who is the “expert” when making joint decisions about finance or other sensitive matters, Olson and Rick, 2018; Nikolova, 2019).
- Relevance – Reed and Forehand identify several ways identity can be relevant for individuals in relation to objects, symbols, goals, actions and evaluations. Such relevance influences behaviors connected to religion (Chapter 24), politics (Chapter 25) and digital self-presentation (Chapter 26). For example, when responding to objects customized by significant others, individuals may “copy” them by making the same object or by taking the same action, or by customizing them in their own fashion (see D’Angelo, et al, 2019).
Selected insights on identity and marketing
Interested readers should consult the Reed and Forehand compilation for detailed findings on identity and marketing. Here we only note a few highlights that may be particularly relevant to understanding consumer behavior in wider social and political contexts.
In Chapter 6, Maja Graso, Karl Aquino and Ekin Ok find that identifying a specific consumers as “victims” can motivate concern and support, but such identities—claimed by the group or ascribed by others—can also have unintended consequences (Uduehi, et al, 2020).
In Chapter 14, Gal Zauberman, Kristin Diehl and Alixandra Barasch explore the relationships between memory pointers and identity. For example, tourists take so many photographs from a “need for specificity.” Such photos do indeed reinforce the authenticity and memory of a trip, regardless of how rarely they are ever viewed again (Diehl, 2017).
In Chapter 25, Donnel A. Briley, Kiju Jung and Shai Danziger find (as expected) that political affiliation shapes consumer behavior but also that these expressions of identity can be more situational and fluid than we imagine (Ordabayeva, 2018).
In Chapter 26, Lauren Grewal and Andrew T. Stephen discuss how one’s online and offline identities can be quite different (Stephen, 2016).
In Chapter 30 (similar to findings in Chapter 6), Jenny Olson, Brent McFerran, Andrea C. Morales and Darren Dahl find that when individuals perceived by others to be “poor” choose more expensive “ethical” rather than “frugal” products, these individuals may be judged to be less “moral” than others making the same choices.
Reed II, A., & Forehand, M. (2019). The Long and Winding Road to Understanding Identity Theory and Marketing. In A. Reed II and M. Forehand (Eds.). Handbook of Research on Identity Theory in Marketing (pp. 1-6). Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Chapter 1 – “Identity salience: understanding when identity affects consumption.’ Keri L. Kettle
Chapter 4 – “How signaling motives and identity salience influence luxury consumption.” Keith Wilcox
Chapter 5 – “The role of identity salience in creative thinking.” Ravi Mehta, Lidan Xu and Darren W. Dahl
Chapter 6 – “Branding virtuous victimhood: how activating the salience of a consumer’s moral identity motivates resource transfers to victim groups.” Maja Graso, Karl Aquino and Ekin Ok
Chapter 7 – “Implicit egocentrism in consumer behavior.” Scott Connors and Andrew W. Perkins
Chapter 8 – “Reminiscing on self-brand connections: differentiating experiential versus symbolic origins.” Jennifer Edson Escalas, Inigo Gallo and Tarje Gaustad
Chapter 9 – “Ownership and identity: a cognitive perspective.” Gita Venkataramani Johar, Jaeyeon Chung and Liad Weiss
Chapter 10 – “Temporal identity and the pursuit of self-enhancement.” Sokiente W. Dagogo-Jack
Chapter 11 – “A framework for considering dissociative identity effects in consumption.” Bonnie Simpson, Lea Dunn and Katherine White
Chapter 12 – “Identity and compensatory consumption.” Derek D. Rucker and Christopher Cannon
Chapter 13 – “Associations matter: revisiting the threat typology model.” Katie Spangenberg and Justin Angle
Chapter 14 – “Memory pointers and identity.” Gal Zauberman, Kristin Diehl and Alixandra Barasch
Chapter 21 – “No (wo)man is an island; dyadic decision-making and identity conflict.” Hristina Nikolova and Cait Lamberton
Chapter 22 – “Cultural identities in the era of globalization: implications for consumer behavior.” Carlos Torelli and Hyewon Oh
Chapter 24 – “Religious identity in marketing.” Joseph E. Barbour, Naomi Mandel and Adam B. Cohen
Chapter 25 – “Political ideology: basis for a dynamic social identity.” Donnel A. Briley, Kiju Jung and Shai Danziger
Chapter 26 – “Identity in the digital age.” Lauren Grewal and Andrew T. Stephen
Chapter 30 – “Identity-based perceptions of others’ consumption choices.” Jenny Olson, Brent McFerran, Andrea C. Morales and Darren Dahl
Reed, A., & Forehand, M. R. (2016). The ebb and flow of consumer identities: The role of memory, emotions and threats. Current Opinion in Psychology, 10, 94–100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.12.015
Reed, A., Forehand, M. R., Puntoni, S., & Warlop, L. (2012). Identity-based consumer behavior. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 29(4), 310–321. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijresmar.2012.08.002
Forehand, M.R., Reed A., and Saint Clair, J. (forthcoming). “Identity Interplay: The Importance and Challenges of Consumer Research on Multiple Identities” Consumer Psychology Review.
Additional MSI Resources:
Boundaries of Self-Expression: Identity Saturation and Brand Preferences in Consumer Choice
Alexander Chernev and David Gal (2009) [MSI Report]
Identity Signaling with Social Capital: A Model of Symbolic Consumption
Jonah Berger, Benjamin Ho, and Yogesh Joshi (2011) [MSI Report]
What We Don’t Know about Digital, Social Media, and Mobile Marketing, But Should
Andrew Stephen (2016) [MSI webinar]
Effective Customer Engagement Strategies in Health Care: The Role of Stigma
Martin Mende, Colleen M. Harmeling, Maura L. Scott, and Robert W. Palmatier (2017) [MSI Report]
Life in Pictures – How Taking Photos Affects Enjoyment and Memory of Experiences
Kristin Diehl (2017) [MSI Presentation]
Marketing in a Politically Polarized Era
Neil Malhotra (2018) [MSI webinar]
How Politics Can Influence Shopping Behavior
Nailya Ordabayeva (2018) [MSI webinar]
Managing Debt and Managing Each Other: The Interpersonal Dynamics of Joint Debt Management Decisions
Jenny G. Olson and Scott I. Rick (2018) [MSI Report]
Lead by Example? Custom-Made Examples Created by Close Others Lead Consumers to Make Dissimilar Choices
Jennifer K. D’Angelo, Kristin Diehl, and Lisa A. Cavanaugh (2019) [MSI Report]
Consumers Make Joint Decisions All The Time… What Should Marketers Do Differently?
Hristina Nikolova (2019) [MSI webinar]
Preference for Material Products in Identity-Based Consumption
Eugina Leung, Maria Cito, Gabriele Paolacci and Stefano Puntoni (2020) [MSI Report]
Stop Calling People “Poor”: What You Don’t Know About Vulnerable Consumers May Cost You
Esther Uduehi, Broderick Turner and Erick Mas (2020) [MSI webinar]