Why Your Customers’ Social Identities Matter
Guy Champniss, Hugh N. Wilson, Emma K. Macdonald
Harvard Business Review | January 2015
Why don’t customers do what they say they’ll do? Consider the experience of the home appliance manufacturer Electrolux. On the basis of its customer feedback, it once contemplated offering free washing machines and using smart technology inside them to charge customers by the wash.
In prelaunch research, consumers had welcomed the idea for several reasons: The washers involved no up-front purchase costs, used less energy, would be upgraded at no charge, and could be repaired faster and more accurately, thanks to diagnostic capabilities embedded in them. Surely this was the future of laundry? But when a trial was run in Sweden, there was simply no demand for the free washers, and the project was shelved.
Many marketers assume that cautionary tales like this just reflect what happens when you present people with an actual decision versus a hypothetical one. That’s part of the explanation, but another factor is at work here: social identity.
People are highly social animals, belonging to many social groups, each with a distinct identity. You can have an identity as a Catholic, a Jew, or a Hindu; as an American or a Russian; as a professor or a musician; and so on. People don’t identify with all their groups at the same time, of course. You probably won’t identify as a Red Sox fan when you’re in church any more than you would feel especially Catholic while taking in a game at Fenway Park.
Social identities are important for marketers because they guide people’s behavior at any given moment. Some behavior will bolster and support the group, and, equally important, some behavior will betray the group. It is no coincidence that people in the same profession—successful athletes, say, or chief executives—tend to buy similar cars and read similar magazines. When it comes to a purchase, the group you identify with at the time of the transaction is a very important factor in your decision.