Amit Bhattacharjee, Dartmouth College – Marketing Backfire

Dr. Amit Bhattacharjee

Dr. Amit Bhattacharjee

The goal of effective marketing is to target potential consumers.

Dr. Amit Bhattacharjee, a professor of marketing at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, discusses the unintended consequences of a marketing plan that is too effective.

Dr. Amit Bhattacharjee is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Marketing group at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. Professor Bhattacharjee’s research lies at the intersection of moral psychology, economic decision making, and consumer well-being. Using a series of behavioral experiments and field studies, he investigates how consumer moral beliefs influence their marketplace behavior. Current projects examine responses to public scandals, judgments of producer motives, and how the pursuit of authenticity influences consumption

Marketing Backfire

People tend to be strongly attracted to brands that fit their identity. So why would anyone avoid a brand after seeing an ad linking it to their identity?

They wouldn’t, according to conventional wisdom. Prior consumer research shows that people like brands that fit their identity and help them express who they are. Environmentalists should be more likely to drive a Prius, and diehard sports fans should be more likely to add a DirecTV sports package.

More and more companies are positioning their brands to fit the identities of consumers. This is a holy grail for marketers. Iconic brands like Apple, Nike, and Starbucks have successfully achieved this fit, and Harley Davidson riders even get brand logo tattoos. Accordingly, marketing executives we surveyed predicted that consumers would respond best to marketing that explicitly communicates how a brand fits with their identity.

In contrast, we find that explicit identity marketing backfires. These messages reduce consumers’ sense of freedom in expressing their identity through the brand. Doing so undermines the self-expressive value of the brand, making its purchase a less meaningful expression of consumers’ identity. Hence, they are less likely to purchase. To restore their sense of freedom in identity expression, consumers may avoid a product even though it fits them well.

While explicit identity marketing messages are counterproductive, the most effective messages are those that merely reference consumers’ identity. A message like, “If you call yourself a sports fan, you gotta have DirecTV!” may not repel every sports fan, but a subtler approach is likely to be more successful.

People want to define their identities for themselves, so marketers will be better off treading lightly. Identity marketing has risks as well as rewards.