Social labels are like clothes: people love them when they think they look good in them, but hate them when they don’t fit well.
A variety of research proves this to be the case—a study from Stanford even found that voter turnout increased when participants were told they were politically active (a positive trait).
Findings such as this are in stark contrast to what people will tell you when asked: there aren’t many of us who will openly admit that we like being labeled.
It seems that labels, or at least those we approve of, are actually quite sought after. Research on social identity theory shows how labels are really just a way for us to identify ourselves as part of an in-group that we favor.
The theory suggests that people identify with groups in such a way as to maximize positive distinctiveness. Groups offer both identity (they tell us who we are) and self-esteem (they make us feel good about ourselves).
But what does this have to do with business? Does group distinction really play a role in brand loyalty?
To begin answering these questions, first we have to look at one of the most loyal consumer "fanbases" of this generation.
The Cult of Apple
A long running joke about Apple consumers is that their "fanboyism" has seemingly reached a cult-like status. Apple has seemingly evoked such a strong sense of customer loyalty that their buyers get a little crazy when a new product is released.
Jokes aside, the "Cult of Apple" may not be so far fetched—recent neuroscience research has revealed that the same areas of the brain that light up when thinking about religion also light up when Apple consumers think about Apple products.
What’s the explanation for such rabid loyalty to a particular brand?
In his now infamous study on social categorization and intergroup behavior, Tajfel and his colleagues sought to find out what it takes to create division amongst groups. What exactly would be needed to cause in-group favoritism?
His findings were shocking to say the least!
Tajfel found that even the most arbitrary methods of group division, such a flipping a coin, was enough to cause favoritism in groups and discrimination against "outsiders" in other groups.
Each test conducted had participants divided by meaningless choices, with participants being asked to divide up real rewards (money) when the experiment was complete. Tajfel found that groups always favored their in-group over outsiders, even though they had nothing to gain from it.
It’s important to note that before this study, none of the participants had met each other and were given no reason to expect that they would have to interact with one another again.
Group formation, it would seem, is strengthened enormously when the group has an enemy. If you’ve ever wondered why fans of opposing sports teams (that have never met) can become so antagonistic to their opponents while being so close-knit to fellow fans (that they’ve also never met), now you have your answer.
If you recall Apple’s famous Mac vs. PC ads or its earlier 1984 advertisement, the message is clear: Apple is for hip, young, creative people and the PC is for corporate drones who use their beige boxes for little more than creating Excel spreadsheets.
A mere parlor trick?
While this information is interesting, you may be asking yourself, "Is group identity really that important for my business, or is the Apple example simply the exception to the norm?"
In answering that, we need a study that looks at multiple businesses in a variety of industries.
Fortunately, the Corporate Executive Board published just such a study on creating brand loyalty in the Harvard Business Review.
According to their findings, one of the big myths about consumer loyalty to brands is the belief that you need to "engage" customers constantly to keep them coming back.
The truth of the matter is that 77% of consumers do not want a relationship with a brand, and for those that do, their willingness to be a loyal consumer has very little to do with engagement:
"Of the consumers in our study who said they have a brand relationship, 64% cited shared values as the primary reason. That's far and away the largest driver."
It would seem that having shared values—or a common philosophy and outlook on particular issues—was the only significant driver for brand relationships with the few consumers who wanted one.
If you recall, this explanation is eerily similar to what we learned about why people are attracted to groups in the first place: when the label fits and makes them look good, people like to be associated with it.
Is it any wonder that some of the most beloved brands out there tend to create this same sense of belonging?
Consider the TOMS shoes One for One movement, or Timberland’s G.R.E.E.N Standard, or any number of other "beyond the bottom line" movements that the most popular brands utilize to create genuine connections with customers.
Their purpose is to plant the brand’s flag within a certain group. You’ll also notice that there is one big exception between many of the most popular examples of "picking a side" and the example at Apple—the enemy that they stand against is almost never another business.
Time to pick a fight
Before you can close out this article and go lace up your boxing gloves, know that not every business can be as daring as Apple in calling out a direct competitor.
In fact, that isn’t necessary at all.
The truth is that you don’t need to make an enemy with another business, because you can make an enemy out of a belief instead.
Instead of denouncing Company X, you should clearly position your business against a behavior, belief, or shared philosophy that your ideal customers are likely to shun as well.
At Help Scout, we stand against those companies who just see customer service as an expense on a spreadsheet. Our friends at Moz villainize the use of shady "blackhat SEO" tactics that spam the web in hopes of manipulating search rankings.
In other words, it would make sense for a nutritionist to raise their banners against greedy corporations who peddle overly processed foods filled with empty calories, but it would be folly for them to name-call and badger a competing nutritionist.
As long as your business doesn’t dwell, sticks to problem and solution scenarios (you can’t make an enemy out of pens if you sell pencils), and doesn’t let things get personal, it’s easy to see how having an "enemy" in an idea can create brand loyalty among consumers who are looking for a business they can proudly support.
So, who’s your enemy?
—Gregory Ciotti is the marketing strategist at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software for small businesses. He writes about consumer research on the Help Scout blog and covers behavioral psychology on Sparring Mind. Follow him on twitter at @gregoryciotti
[Image: Flickr user S. Carter]