Brand Identity: Signaling the Self

Posted by: Jessica Cornick, PhD
  • June 13, 2017

When someone asks you what kind of car you drive, what are they really asking? In her blog on car buying, Collette Eccleston, PhD said, “More than many other consumer purchases, cars act as a visible signal of our status, beliefs and personality. When we buy a car we signal to ourselves and others a bit about who we are. ‘I am smart.’ ‘I am successful.’ ‘I am fun.’”

Let’s revisit Jane the Consumer, the protagonist of our series of blogs on Brand Identity, to illustrate the idea of people using brands as a means of self-expression. Jane identifies as eco-friendly, and she considers this a desirable trait that she attempts to signal to others. She does so through the items she owns, the actions she takes, the content she posts on social media, and the brands she badges. When brands develop reputations as being eco-friendly, they create opportunities for Jane to signal that she is eco-friendly by using their products.

For example, Jane drives a Toyota Highlander, a hybrid SUV. Toyota claims to balance a passion for performance with a love for the planet, evidenced by their dedication to their line of alternative energy cars. When Jane drives her hybrid, she accomplishes two things. First, her car helps her embody her core beliefs – it helps her take the abstract idea of eco-consciousness and make it real. Second, driving the hybrid allows her to signal these core beliefs to others. By publicly demonstrating her commitment to the environment, she defines who she is – to herself and to the world at large.

We know from decades of social psychological research that people go to great lengths to maintain a positive sense of self. Not surprisingly, then, they tend to appear in public with brands that they are proud of and think that others will find appealing. (This drive toward maintaining a positive view of the self also extends to the brands that become part of us via identification. We attend more to the “hybrid” sticker on the vehicle and less to the fact that its gas mileage, and eco-friendliness, is limited by being an SUV.) When that brand becomes part of an individual’s identity, brand endorsement becomes a vehicle for self-expression and signals to others what the person stands for.

This is not only true of the cars people drive. Fashion brands, for example, can also signal identities. Even in today’s disrupted market, we know that if Jane wears Polo Ralph Lauren, that says one thing about her, and if she wears Harley-Davidson, that says something else entirely. (Jane actually wears Patagonia – much like driving a hybrid, wearing Patagonia signals that she values environmental sustainability.)

Next week we will present the final part of our series on increasing brand identification in current and prospective customers when we discuss bringing brand loyalists together to share brand-related experiences. You can find the other blogs in our series here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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