Identity-Based Alienation: How Marketing Can Backfire
Pink razors marketed to women. Blue ones to men. Hair products with labels saying they’re made for Black women. Sturdy bottles of lotion touting that they’re “skincare for men.”
You’ve likely seen many of these identity-based labels in your local big-box store. But do you buy them? Or do you turn away, even if you are part of one of the groups these products claim to be designed for?
That is the question behind research from Darden Professor Tami Kim. In a working paper, Kim and her co-authors used both in-lab and field studies to examine identity-based appeals and determine how they affected consumers.
What they found might surprise the marketers behind some of these products.
Single-Identity Appeals Often Alienate Target Consumers in Marginalized Groups
At first glance, if you are trying to market a product to women, it might seem logical to label the product as “for women” and produce a color stereotypically thought to appeal to women, such as pink or purple. However, Kim and her colleagues determined that such appeals are actually more likely to turn away women and other groups targeted in similar ways.
The first two studies cited in the paper explore what happens when consumers are presented with two items: a green calculator and a purple calculator. For some women in the study, the purple calculator was labeled as “for women,” invoking a stereotype that women like purple. For some men, the green one was labeled “for men.”
Even though more women preferred the purple calculator at baseline, with no identity label attached, fewer chose it with the identity label attached. The label turned away targeted consumers who might have otherwise purchased the product.
Subsequent studies found that the effect was strongest in people who felt their groups were marginalized and for those who felt their groups were targeted through stereotypes, as with the “female” color purple.
Another study conducted during the 2016 presidential election found that women rejected campaign rhetoric suggesting that they should vote for Hillary Clinton because she is a woman.
Accordingly, Kim said, marketers should especially avoid appeals based on a single identity or on a stereotype — even if that stereotype is not negative. Otherwise, they are likely to lose the very people they want to win over.
The Exceptions: Multiple Identities and Appeals Grounded in Practicality
Instead of focusing on a single identity, Kim and her colleagues hypothesize that identity-based appeals are most effective when they 1) include multiple identities and 2) when they reflect the unique use or value of the product.
To test the first idea, they presented Asian consumers with different bottles of cooking oil flavored with ginger and garlic. One bottle had no identity appeal, one had a “for Asians” label and one had a “for Asians and food lovers” label. Those who saw the “for Asians” label were significantly less interested in the product, while those who saw the label with multiple identities were about as interested as those who saw no label. Those groups were also more likely to feel welcomed and safe in the store in question.
Invoking multiple identities, Kim said, avoids making consumers feel completely singled out for their race, gender or other identity marker and fits more with our social reality and conception of ourselves. We belong to and identify with multiple social identities and groups, and single-identity appeals fail to reflect that fact.
In their final study, Kim and her colleagues tested need-based identity appeals, used when a product specifically suits the needs of a certain group. They found that those appeals — such as a shampoo labeled as sulfate-free for Black women, who specifically benefit from that formulation — did not alienate Black female customers, but rather made them more likely to purchase the product. The marketing accurately reflected the customers’ experience, and they could see that the label was tailored to a specific need rather than to a stereotype.
What Marketers Can Do
Marketers should keep this evidence in mind when they decide how they are going to market a product to a particular consumer group. The most important thing, Kim said, is to know your customer. This gets repeated so often in business that it is easy to tune out, but knowing your target customer — really knowing them — might mean leaving out an identity appeal when it just isn’t necessary or when it will turn customers away.
When you do feel it is necessary, focus on appealing to multiple identities or grounding your appeal in a specific, practical need — then consumers can easily see what you are trying to do and trust that your product fits with how they see themselves and their needs.
Don’t limit your product — or your consumer — to a single, stereotypical identity.
Darden Professor Tami Kim co-authored “When Identity-Based Appeals Alienate Consumers” with Kate Barasz of ESADE Business School and Leslie John and Michael I. Norton, both of Harvard Business School.