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Shopper Behavior: The Role of Identity Perception

My recent article in “The Hub,” Triangulating to Truth, evoked an invigorating conversation on LinkedIn’s Shopper Insights Group. In the article, I described the power of understanding shoppers’ brand choices through multiple dimensions – rational, emotional and identity. I suggested that, among other factors, a shopper’s perception of a retailer’s customers is a strong behavior driver. Whether a person will shop at a retailer is strongly affected by whether the perceived identity of this retailer’s shoppers matches this person’s self-identity.

Interestingly, a good part of the subsequent online discussion focused on brand identity. Some people believed that brands do not have identities, or that if brand identities exist, they are  weak motivators for shoppers’ choices. Others took an opposite view; brands have identities that should be developed carefully. While I find the debate interesting, I’m not sure brand identity is very important. I would, however, argue strongly that marketers should focus on the perceived identity of a brand’s shoppers.

We know that self-concept or identity is vitally connected to our esteem and psychological well-being. It is very much a component of our deep needs for affirmation, belonging and distinctiveness. Brands matter because they serve as powerful status markers which reinforce or contradict our self-concepts. For example, driving a red Mini Cooper convertible says something about me, both to myself and to others. So would eating at McDonald’s, or shopping at a Dollar Store.

What a brand represents as a status marker can be different for different people. For me, the identity of someone who shops at Dollar Store is someone who is downscale and not very discerning about quality. This is not an identity to which I aspire. Therefore, you are unlikely to see me in these stores because that is not what I want to say to others about me. However, for many people, shopping at Dollar Store represents someone who is smart and savvy – very positive self-concepts – and  shopping there may even bring forth a sense of pride for them. So, one of the key drivers of whether we choose to shop at Dollar Store is what we, consciously or subconsciously, believe to be the identity of its shoppers.

At Communispace, we have demonstrated the importance of identity over and again for our clients. Brands and products are clear status markers; therefore, identity perception plays a significant role in shopper choice. However, we have also shown that some behaviors are also motivated by identity perceptions. In many disease states, for example, whether a patient chooses to take medication can be traced to their perception about what behavior says about their self-identity.

Next time you hesitate to do something that makes perfect logical sense, stop and reflect on your own identity implications, and let us know what you learned.

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