Are you Marketing?

Volume 15 Letter 2

Are you marketing or are you just selling? When selling you’re trying to influence a customer’s decision to choose a particular product or service. Marketing is about trying to change consumer behavior. While good salesmanship may result in a purchase, good marketing has the potential to gain a lifetime customer and product advocate. The implications for a business are immense and marketing investments should be taken with the same rigor and long term view as R&D. To understand why, take the two stories below starting with the Toyota Prius.

Prius was not the first nor the only hybrid car on the market but given its share of the hybrid automotive market you’d think it was. By mid 2014 a full half of all the hybrids sold in North America were Toyota Prius and its next largest competitor, the Honda Civic Hybrid, had only one seventh the sales. Is the Toyota hybrid really that much better than all the competitors?

The Prius has managed to connect with people’s social identity. It’s the only hybrid with its own brand and distinct look informing the world that the driver is environmentally conscious. Drive any other hybrid and you might fail to be identified as an environmental supporter. Driving a Prius not only puts the owner into this environmentally conscious group but also strengthens the owner’s status within that group.

Like schools of fish, each generation of consumers is drawn to its preferred social crowd. Lest you think this “schooling effect” only occurs for consumer products, think again. Social crowding (customer segmentation), holds true for every industry from heavy industrial products to medical devices and pharmaceuticals to consumer products. Interestingly, many individuals will adamantly claim they don’t belong to any group believing they are independent thinkers unconcerned with conforming to social norms but the truth is they’re only deceiving themselves. The challenge of a marketing team is to identify these groups and find a way to communicate with them.

Authors Champniss, Wilson and Macdonald in a recent article 1 suggest that people have different social identities. You may have one as a business person, another as a parent, yet another as a skier, an artist or as in our example above, an environmentalist. Each social identity shapes decision making. The goal of the marketer is to identify and then connect with the social identity the customer is expressing when making a purchase. Here’s another example of how tapping into a social identity worked for a European team launching a new medical device.

The device was replacing an older product of the same brand. Notably, the new medical implant had failed to launch successfully in both North America and Asia. Additionally, market research showed that only eight percent of the European Implant Physicians were interested in upgrading to the new product. So rather than blanketing the market with the new product as was done in North America and Asia, a strategy was developed to tap into the social identity of the Implant Physicians who, as a group are very competitive and status seeking. The strategy restricted early sales to the “Interested Implant Physicians” only (the eight percent). As these “chosen” physicians started to use the new device word quickly spread to the wider implant physician community. Before long angry implant doctors were calling the European head office demanding that “their” sales rep show them the new product. The new implant, which sells for a premium, fully replaced the old product within a year. By tapping into the physician groups’ competitiveness and their social identity to be seen as “cutting edge” the product was launched successfully.

So what can we learn from this?

  • Social identities are powerful determinants of purchasing behavior. In our Prius example, owners often purchase to identify with their “environmentally conscious” social community.
  • Shift your focus from individual attitudes to the customer’s social identity: In the medical device example above, previously uninterested doctors had a competitive nature and wanted to be seen as “cutting edge”. They quickly changed their minds about the new product when their social identity was challenged. They didn’t want to be left behind.
  • Broadcast membership: once you tap into a social identity develop ways to strengthen membership as Prius did with a unique brand or as the medical device company did by restricting initial supply.

Marketing is about changing customer behavior and a great way to change a behavior is to tap into a consumers’ social identity. Isn’t it time your company started marketing!

1. More reading on Social Identities see Champniss, Wilson, MacDonald; HBR Jan / Feb 2015 “Why Your Customer Social Identity Matters” P 88 – P 96.

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