Marketers work hard to create an emotional link between consumers and the brands those marketers promote. But that kind of attachment is not easily won and must be nurtured over time. Experts say one way to create that emotional link is by aligning a brand’s identity with the consumer’s sense of self; that is, with a person’s understanding of who they are and what they want to be.
But which sense of self are we talking about? The actual one based on how consumers perceive themselves today – or the ideal one based on who they aspire to be? Answering that question has profound implications for brands, including green brands, in terms of how they should build brand attachment with consumers.
Lucia Malär, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Bern's Institute of Marketing and Management, and several of her colleagues recently published a paper in the Journal of Marketing (PDF) that explores the relationship between the consumer’s actual and ideal sense of self. While this academic study did not directly address green brands, there are important lessons green marketers can take away from it.
According to the paper, consumers generally form greater emotional attachments with brands that align to how consumers view themselves, rather than what consumers aspire to be. For green brands this is not a trivial consideration -- especially when you consider that, for many consumers, the notion of being green is a goal they aspire to.
Malär et al. identify three attributes that have a significant impact on consumer attachment: the degree of product involvement, the level of consumer self-esteem and the propensity for public self-consciousness. Here are some thoughts on how these characteristics can help green marketers better engage consumers:
The paper defines product involvement as a consumer’s engagement with a product, largely determined by how relevant consumers perceive that product to be in their lives. Malär et al. observe that highly engaged consumers have a positive emotional attachment with brands that align to their actual sense of self, while less engaged consumers have positive attachment with brands that focus on consumers’ ideal sense of self.
At the same time, it’s not necessarily true that less eco-engaged consumers will respond positively to brands aligned to their ideal self. While consumers may be aspirationally green, they simply may not be familiar with the products that can help them achieve this aspiration.
Green marketers might first need to educate consumers about green brands before those brands can become relevant in their lives. One powerful tool is to communicate a goal-driven message around green products, while showcasing their actual use by people that consumers can readily identify with. That’s what Mitsubishi did when it created a demonstration program for electric car technology in the town of Normal, Ill.
Malär et al. say consumer self-esteem is an essential part of emotional brand attachment -- as consumers seek out brands that reinforce or enhance their own perceptions of self worth. This means consumers with higher self-esteem have a positive emotional attachment to brands that reinforce their actual sense of self. At the same time, consumers with lower self-esteem have positive emotional attachment with brands that enhance perceptions of their ideal sense of self.
Given the relative newness of green as a branding category, it may make sense for green marketers to interpret self-esteem as a consumer’s confidence in their ability to make greener choices that are right for them. When engaging green-confident consumers, brands might therefore want to emphasize evidence that confirms the consumer’s self view. For example, green brands should praise consumers for taking eco-friendly actions.