You Ask, I Answer: What is Identity Marketing?

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You Ask, I Answer: What is Identity Marketing?

Hannah asks, “What is identity marketing?”

Identity marketing is the use of consumers’ identities for marketing purposes. This can be done by creating identities that customers adopt, or by bonding brands to customers’ existing identities. Identity marketing can be beneficial for customer retention, but it can also be detrimental by promoting polarization and inflexibility.

You Ask, I Answer: What is Identity Marketing?

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Christopher Penn 0:14

In this episode, Hannah asks, What is identity marketing? So identity marketing, it’s got a few different definitions, but in the context that I’m using it, it is the leveraging of consumers identities for marketing purposes.

It is brands, creating identities that customers adopt that they fuse into their, into their existing identities.

This is not a new idea.

We’ve had it for decades, if not centuries, right.

But with the advent of the internet and social media, it’s it’s become much much more prominent, especially in social media.

For example, we’ve always had public brands where we take that brand, we bond it to our personal identity, we identify ourselves, we say, we are this kind of person with that brand.

For example, I live in Boston, a lot of people in Boston or Red Sox fan, so that is part of their identity.

As a person they they view themselves as being a Red Sox fan, it’s who they are.

Which means if you put them in the room with the Yankees fan, you know, there’s there can be friendly rivalry or on friendly rivalry, depending on how ardent that those people are about their identities, right.

People get in fistfights about their favorite baseball team stuff.

That’s an example of identity marketing.

This corporation has created something that people attach to themselves as part of who they are.

Another example that’s really well known Harley Davidson, right Harley Davidson, the motorcycle company, just that name alone, probably depending on your on where you live, may conjure up this mental image of a certain kind of person with a certain kind of looks a certain kind of clothing, they wear a certain type of vehicle, they drive that different habits, that is identity marketing.

And it’s so powerful when it’s done, right? When, when you think about it, there are people who get tattoos of their favorite brands, right? They will people who have, you know, Harley Davidson tattoos on them, or Boston Bruins tattoos, they would literally take needles and stab them into their body to, to put this mark of this brand on themselves.

That’s how fused the identity is.

That’s what it is.

But brands are doing and have been really trying hard to do over the last really, decade or two with the eager consent of many customers is work harder than ever to fuse themselves to a person’s identity.

In theory, this is good marketing, in theory, because it’s very hard once something becomes part of your identity to dislodge.

Right, the switching cost is very high.

For some things, right? Like, you know, a pack of gum.

This is not something is going to bond itself to your identity.

And if you don’t have that particular brand new GM, yeah, we’re like, okay, fine, I’ll get something else.


Whereas someone who’s a die hard Harley Davidson man or a die hard Apple fan, they’re not gonna be like, no, just go get a different, you know, just go get a Yamaha.

Or just go get an Android people like those people who were it’s so much part of identity like no, I would never never do that, ever.

And so that’s good marketing.

Right? That’s good marketing.

It’s it’s customer retention.

For example, it’s something you think about identity.

How often do people change religions? Not often, it is not something that happens a whole lot.

Religion is as much a part of someone’s identity as a system of belief.

There are people who are affiliated culturally with a religion, even if they don’t practice the religion itself, right? People who say they’re like a lapsed Catholic or a terrible Jew or an incompetent Buddhist or something along those lines where the religion has become part of their identity.

This has gotten really bad in the last really the last 20 years with politics, right? Political parties do this to great effect.

So much so that people commit heinous acts of violence in the name of their political identity and It’s so rabid, that it’s very difficult to dislodge.

Right? It’s, it’s almost a cult, when you talk to somebody who’s a fan of this person or that person to this party or that party.

It has that same zeal that makes it very difficult to dislodge makes it very difficult for someone to change their mind.

And it makes it very difficult for, for people to avoid the extremes of any system of belief.

The negative consequences of identity marketing is that you can create really bad situations.

So there’s a couple things that brands have to keep in mind.

One, if you are bonding your brand to someone’s identity, if you are saying this is who we are, this is what we stand for, you are inherently going to reject a portion of your audience, you’re inherently going to reject a portion of your customer base, if you say that you are ardent fans of the outdoors, and you wholeheartedly promote mitigating climate change, there’s a whole section of the population that will not buy from you, because they don’t believe in it.


If you wholeheartedly say you believe in trans rights, gay rights and trans rights, there’s a whole chunk of the population that will not buy from you.

It’s fine and good and laudable, to incorporate values into your brand.

But there is the trade off that a portion of your customers simply will not do business with you anymore.

The bigger problem with identity marketing itself, is it promotes additional mental and emotional in flexibility in a population of people that globally, globally, not just one country already has relatively little mental and emotional flexibility.

We are as a planet.

So incredibly polarized in so many nations around the world, with this mindset that you’re either with us or you’re against us.

Attitudes for everything under the sun, is the earth round, right? Should I wear a mask? Or should I get a vaccine that is life saving? There, we’ve polarized everything.

And part of the reason for that is our eager embrace, across industries across industry types of identity marketing, the more we advocate that somebody adopt our point of view into their identity, the more inflexible we make them.

You know, if you think about it, take any polarizing issue at all, like wearing a mask, right, which shouldn’t be polarizing, but it is.

That has become part of people’s identity.

Right? Either you don’t do it or you do it.

And there is, of course, a tremendous amount of strife that people have with each other about this relatively simple thing.

If you step back, you’re like, Oh, well, it doesn’t really impose a huge cost seems like a fairly logical thing to do.

But because it’s become part of our identities, it’s become part of the identity of, of systems of belief.

It’s polarizing.

And so, as a brand as a as a marketer, you have to figure out whether you’re going to use identity marketing as a tactic and as a strategy and if so, what the consequences of that will be, and you may not get a choice, right, you may not get a choice in the matter if your customers already take your product and fuse it to their identity anyway, right? If you if you make one of these things, this whether or not you want to be doing identity marketing, about whether people should wear masks, if you make this thing, you’re part of that conversation, whether you want to be or not.

And so part of your job as a marketer is to look at the products and services you offer and say is there a possibility that we could be lumped into a certain point of view that would be harmful to our business? And if so, we probably want to try and have some kind of plan in place to deal with that.

But that’s what identity marketing is.

It’s a very challenging thing it is it can be extremely damaging.

It can be very harmful to people.

People can can and do often.

Do very out of character things for them because they’ve they’ve transitioned a point of view into a belief.

And that belief is something that is very hard to change and very easy to create a defensive reaction if it’s ever challenged.

So give that some thought.

But it’s a really good question.


an important question.

We are at a point now where what’s happening in the world is getting more and more pronounced natural disasters, get bigger pandemics, new novel diseases, et cetera.

So much so that even if we’re not necessarily involved in identity marketing right now, we probably will be at some point.

So have plans in place? Really good question.

It’s a complicated question.

Thanks for asking.

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