It was around the time of the Florida election recounts that Lisa Bolton, a marketing professor at Wharton, noticed that no one seemed to be listening. She saw the emotional debate, Democrats and Republicans exercised and red-faced, no one budging an inch. It was more of the same when the new administration announced plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a short time later – environmentalists in one camp, Republicans in another. “I was watching it all and thinking, ‘No one is changing their mind in all of this. There’s no meeting in the middle.’”
Her marketing colleague Americus Reed, meanwhile, would often drift into her office, waxing philosophic about the power of identity – the fact that decisions, consumer and otherwise, are really all about a person’s identity.
Bolton began thinking about Reed’s words and the national political debate, and a host of other contexts came to mind: Why do so many smokers keep smoking, despite decades of health warnings? Why do Harley Davidson motorcycles and Ralph Lauren clothing engender such loyalty among very specific types of people? Why do teens and parents always seem to fight, and never seem to hear what the other is saying?
Four experiments later, Bolton and Reed found some answers, demonstrating that, indeed, judgments linked to a person’s identity – from teenager to Republican, environmentalist or businessman – are virtually immovable, or “sticky.” In a recent research article, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Marketing Research, Bolton and Reed take a broad look at social identity, from its effects on attitudes about new products to social and political judgments.
Titled “Sticky Priors: The Perseverance of Identity Effects on Judgment,” the paper’s four studies examined judgments of a variety of issues and products, such as pollution, legalizing marijuana, and electronic books, that were linked to different identities such as environmentalist, businessperson, or parent. Bolton and Reed then tried to weaken participants’ judgments using techniques that varied from evenhanded reasoning (listing pros and cons) to adopting the perspective of another identity (say, parent vs. teenager). They had little success. Social influence – good old peer pressure – was somewhat effective in countering identity-based judgment, “but not entirely,” Bolton says. “Throughout, we found that identity is really powerful in its effects on judgment.
“It doesn’t help to go to a person and say, ‘Hey come on, look at the evidence.’ If being a smoker is part of your identity, you can [read] all the analytic evidence in the world about cancer and heart disease, and it’s going to be very difficult to [change] your attitude toward smoking because it’s so much a part of how you define yourself,” Bolton says. “Your identity serves as a filter of sorts, and you discount information, alternative perspectives, or social influence that’s inconsistent with that identity.”
Identity and Brand Loyalty
The message for marketers, Bolton says, is that identity is a powerful way to build brand loyalty. “It resists counter attack from competitors. Arguments that say – ‘My brand is better because of these attributes’ – are probably not enough to overcome a strong identity based attitude favoring a competitor. Identity is a good basis for brand loyalty that resists change,” she says.
Smart marketers have relied on identity messages for years, luring consumers with products and brands that symbolize their own personality traits – or traits they aspire to. Ralph Lauren, for instance, has built an empire peddling everything from paint to perfume to the well-heeled set. Previous research has similarly demonstrated that consumers are often attracted to products and brands that are linked to their identity. But Bolton and Reed’s work, the researchers say, is the first to show how powerful identity is. “We believe we are the first to take an identity-based judgment, subject it to attack with a variety of techniques and demonstrate what a force it is,” Bolton says.
According to the paper, “(Brand) preferences based on an important identity will be especially sticky. Successfully appealing to consumer identity as a part of product positioning becomes, then, an important source of brand loyalty. If a brand can be connected to central aspects of the self-concept, then the consumer will view the brand as ‘part of me,’ that is, an extension of the self.”
For social marketers focused on bettering consumer welfare, the studies provide evidence that finger-wagging messages, such as anti-smoking advertising that barrages consumers with warnings about health risks, can be wholly ineffective. “Young people, teenagers, are just not going to respond to those kinds of messages,” Bolton says. “They don’t think they are at risk, but it’s also not tying into why they smoke to begin with.” A better approach, the researchers suggest, would focus on offering an attractive counter identity, such as encouraging healthy habits by linking it to athleticism, or “inoculating” younger adolescents with anti-smoking messages before they begin to think of smoking as a part of an identity. “Providing a counter identity beforehand for thinking about smoking (e.g., a savvy teen consumer who distrusts tobacco companies, as seen in recent advertising by the Legacy Foundation) may be more effective at neutralizing smoking behaviors than traditional campaigns that employ analytic reasoning (e.g., health-risk messages used in anti-tobacco advertising),” the paper states.
What does the study offer managers? “Your identity can affect how you face problems as a manager,” Bolton says. “If you’re a marketer, you think you need more advertising. If you’re a finance person, you think you need more investment. It got me to thinking about the challenge of reconciling those different points of view within the firm. It also made me think that just being a businessperson is actually a really strong identity for a lot of people. A strong identity makes it harder to consider alternative points of view, which is what you need to do as a manager.”
This identity-driven thinking, the paper states, “may lead to biased perceptions and expectations of customers and competitors, leading to overconfident predictions of marketplace success.”
“Stickiness isn’t always a bad thing,” Bolton continues. “Sometimes, it’s good to stick to your guns or persevere with an initial judgment – if it’s correct. But stickiness can be bad if it leads us astray and prevents us from adapting to new information in our environment. On the flip side of the stickiness coin, our research also explores ways to change or take the bias out of judgment – for example, by prompting people to engage in more analytic pro-and-con reasoning or to adopt counter-identities. I hope that some of these tools may prove useful in overcoming the stickiness of an initial judgment and ultimately help managers and consumers make better decisions.”