“Just Do It.” These three short words manage to convey a powerful message for Nike. Through repetition of memorable images such as sweat-drenched basketball players, breathless runners and the like, the sportswear and sneaker company’s advertising campaigns have become synonymous with athletic identity.


Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed II notes that a successful identity-oriented marketing strategy like Nike’s consists of three critical links, including the consumer, the identity and the brand. “If these links are forged, then they create self-conceptual connections that can lead to advantageous marketing outcomes for companies that are savvy enough to incorporate identity into their marketing strategy,” he says.


With the Nike logo or “swoosh” strongly seen as an emblem of an athletic person, it then acts as an “identity cue” for this lifestyle. Through the use of repetition of the logo and motto, the company creates a higher likelihood that those consumers who self-identify as ‘athletes’ will prefer those products that are synchronous with that image. The whole idea, he adds, “is to try to link the Nike brand name to the athlete identity in such a way that the various products (shoes, watches, and clothing) become like a “prop” in terms of helping consumers enact their athlete identities. Moreover, the goal is to help the consumer fortify that identity, as well as communicate that identity to others.”


Such a premise seems simple. However, while many companies use logos and catchy phrases to sell their wares, only a few are successful “in terms of creating an image which consumers connect to some important social identification,” says Reed. For example, the Harley-Davidson brand is revered as an American icon a symbol of free-spiritedness, among other things. From 1988 to 1995, he points out, annual shipments of Harley motorcycles more than doubled, and buyers wait between six and 18 months to take delivery of a new model. “Why are consumers willing to pay premiums and to wait for the product?” Reed asks. “One answer is that the brand is not dependent on advertising or other traditional marketing techniques in the same way that automobile companies are. Most auto companies are selling transportation. Harley Davidson is selling a lifestyle. There’s a big difference.”  


In his research paper titled Exploring Identity Salience and Purchase Intent, Reed takes a close look at the issue of brand identity by examining the triggers that lead consumers to identify with and become loyal to a product, brand or logo.


Social identification with avocation, family, religious groups or gender appear to factor heavily into the buying patterns of consumers, and consequently also in the marketing efforts of advertisers. The paper states that through symbolic preference formation (i.e., getting consumers to like a product offering because it appeals to the lifestyle they have or want to have), companies can create more effective and persuasive advertising. Reed describes the term ‘identity salience’ as the process through which an advertisement, product, brand or any marketing stimulus specifically brings to mind strong and positive thoughts of the consumer’s identity, rooted in personal situations or group memberships. He also goes on to argue that the mere existence of a particular lifestyle and an ad portraying that same situation is not enough to make the product appeal to the targeted consumer, because consumers often have a variety of roles linked to various preferences.


Culling together prior, though separate research in the field, Reed directly tests the idea that the highest preferences for identity relevant products should occur when: 1) the identity itself is linked to a clear preference for the brand, and 2) consumers are thinking about themselves as possessing that identity. The first portion of the research used information taken from 117 study participants after they completed a visual imagery test of typeface formats used on the Internet. The group members were asked to assess the ‘warm, memorable, fun, or common’ feelings derived from words printed in differing typefaces. Unbeknownst to the participants, however, the study merely set out to expose some of the participants to an ‘identity cue,’ in this case the socially significant words of son and daughter. Others in a control group saw the word “friend” in print.


To test the first point, the same group was then asked to evaluate three products, with product descriptions and advertisements on the items handed out in advance. The ad for only one product, a PDA device, highlighted its usefulness when planning for family activities. In other words, it was ‘framed’ to have relevance to the identity in question. According to Reed, this kind of framing is a key aspect of strategically positioning the product so that it can become linked to the identity. The results showed that those who were exposed to the salient family ‘identity cues’ (son and daughter) were more likely to give a favorable judgment of the PDA product, with these participants indicating a higher purchase likelihood for the identity relevant focal product than those that had no ‘identity cue’ linked to a product.


To test the second point, the second part of the research involved giving 135 individuals the same visual imagery test given to the prior study participants. The group’s members were then asked to write a brief description of themselves. “The percentage was calculated of instances in which participants did or did not mention a connection to their family in their self-descriptions,” the paper states. The results indicated that the exposure to the identity relevant cues, ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ in this case, did make the participants more likely to use the words or the family relationship in their writing. This indirectly suggests that the identity cues made the consumers more likely to think about themselves in terms of the identity that the cue triggered.


Reed also says that a consumer is more likely to think about him or herself in terms of a particular identity if the identity is very self-important. Hence, the ‘potency of the identification’ impacts heavily on identity-relevant advertising. The paper notes, “ At any given moment, a consumer who strongly associates with an identity is more likely to have that identity activated than is a consumer who weakly associates with that social identity.” For instance, he says, two consumers may both consider themselves as athletes, but one could be more strongly tied to this persona. For the individual more closely linked to his or her athletic image, it would then be easier to get them to respond to identity cues tapping into this lifestyle. “The more important that affiliation is to the customer, the easier it is to bring the group affiliation to mind and to connect it to the product,” he adds.


If this seems like an obvious statement, Reed asks why, then, isn’t everyone doing it and doing it well? “What’s not obvious is exactly how to pick an important identity to link to your logo and socialize consumers in a way that increases the likelihood [they will make purchases] based on how they see themselves. Remember ‘Dinky’ , the Taco Bell dog? The goal was to create an identity cue in this case using humor that highlighted the ‘authenticity’ of the Mexican food products sold by the store chain. However, pressure from Hispanic advocacy groups speaking out against the fast food giants’ stereotypical ads did Dinky in.


Sometimes, Reed say, the execution of certain identity cues can be seen as offensive to some of the groups that these cues are actually meant to embody. So another key question for marketers is how to create an identity and persuade consumers that [this identity] should be an important part of who they are, thereby facilitating a potency ‘aspect.’

The third part of the research delved into this question of potency by having 121 participants complete a handwriting sample. A part of the group was then asked to write about their family and how they work to improve the relationship. Another portion of the study participants was asked to write about their family relationship and how they work to be more independent as an individual young adult. The group also took a litany of other consumer study tests, unrelated to the research, but meant to conceal the nature of the ‘identity cue’ test given to some participants.


Then the group took the same product evaluation test of the PDA and other products. Certain control tests were given to rule out mood changes as a manipulation factor in the testing process. The test results confirmed once again that the participants who perceived their family relationship as strong indicated a higher likelihood to purchase the PDA (the identity relevant product).


In order to gather additional evidence, the fourth and final part of the research consisted of 140 students at a southeastern high school who participated in the study, with the sample consisting of equal numbers of males and females, but with a racial breakdown of 50% white, 30% black, 15% Hispanic and 5% other. Though the participants were not originally told the true nature of the study, they took three separate tests to assess their identity with and admiration for their respective group’ in this case an identity the sample referred to as “future college educated leaders of America.”


The same individuals also assessed a web page for its message content and design. (The page consisted of a Smithsonian magazine membership). However, the true nature of the test involved assessing the web page’s relevancy to the respective population. A portion of the participants received the ‘identity cue,’ as they were told that the web page marketing test was previously given to a group of individuals described as “college-educated and highly likely to be the future leaders of this country.” Another portion of the participants learned that the web page test was supposedly given to a group that possessed a college education and reasonable spending power.


Additionally, the researchers gave a section of the participants a written description of the web page, highlighting the value and inexpensive nature of the magazine. To determine object relevancy, another portion of the group received a note emphasizing the successful and intelligent people that purchased the magazine. This phase of the research served to show the strong but complex relationship between identity cues, individual identity and the relevancy of the product. Ultimately, those that responded more favorably to the website were those exposed both to an ‘identity cue’ described previously, as well as the magazine framed in terms of the relevant identity.


According to Reed, his overall research findings attempt to illustrate the “interplay of identity cues and the self-importance of consumer social identities in determining responses to brands and products” designed to appeal to a particular lifestyle or social identity. The most important step, says Reed, is for a company to develop a strong ‘identification strategy,’ choosing an identity that consumers value, and then incorporating identity cues into an ad or message to spark an immediate and favorable response to the product.


Reed also suggests that companies be on the lookout for “new, promising social identities that come about because of societal change’” such as more and more women athletes and working mothers. Such developments suggest a change in gender identity and how it can be effectively used to position products.

If the marketing mix elements can successfully accomplish identification-based strategies, says Reed, then the consumer will ultimately feel that they simply cannot do without the product. “There are substantial rewards to be reaped if companies can effectively link identities to their products or even create unique brand identities.”