Your Company Needs An Enemy, And Here's The Data To Prove It

Your antagonist doesn't necessarily need to be another business. Positioning yourself against an idea could, in fact, be the most durable approach.

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?

If you were to ask psychologist Henri Tajfel, he would likely tell you that one of the main reasons is that Apple has drawn a line in the sand, and have clearly chosen an enemy for their customers.

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]

Add New Comment


  • Gogo Erekosima

    I like how you've taken a little bit of time to criticize the comments of your critics on this page. It shows personality, and frankly seems to be illustrative of the principle you're sharing in your article.

    Funny and interesting.

  • Gregory Ciotti

    Ding ding ding, we have a winner. :)

    And to clarify, that's not sarcasm!

  • GettingClosure

    Its this kind of black and white thinking that's wrong with the world. Hey let's make enemies and polarize them further to be a part of a group. So "I" can get more work. And "I" can look good at the expense of others. These kinds of articles blow. It's a system of baiting people on twitter with provocate headlines and getting them to this website. Not all the articles are like this but unfortunately I'd say a few like these slip through the cracks. Whether one is picking a fight with a belief or an actual competitor it's the same monday morning quarterbacking thats rampant across social media. Take cheap shots and score points. Hey look, I'm not doing it in my real name so I can speak without trying to score points.

    It's like donating to charity and tweeting about it... So that everyone knows you've donated to charity. Fail.

  • Gregory Ciotti

    This article doesn't seem like it was meant for you, and it really seems like you aren't a business owner (the intended reader).

    I say this because it is hard for me to believe you even thought this response through before responding with your opinion.

    You failed to comment on any of the academic research, you managed to totally miss the point of the entire article (it's not about taking "cheap shots" at all), and you're rambling about how the author didn't use a name, when my name is clearly listed at the top of this piece.

    That's because I stand by my assertions, and prefer not to leave poorly constructed rants under an anonymous pseudonym.

  • GettingClosure

    Actually you are wrong and goes to really show where black and white thinking fails on so many levels. I do own a small business that serves HUGE global clients. I may not be JCP, but then again I'm not a retail store. My clients are in some cases finding me through social media. And I am operating legally and I pay my taxes as a business. Kind sir.

    I never said I didn't agree with the research. It's just that I don't agree with journalists suggesting unethical strategies. In fact I do know a little something about strategy as it's a key part of my business. Ethics should be a part of strategy to some degree right? Whether it's ethical or not depends on your position. I stated mine.

    That kind of strategy is cheap, tangential and has nothing to do with the product or service being sold. It just manipulates others by superficially taking on enemies. Works in the defense world and in popularity contests. I'm not down with it. Sorry!

    And apparently not many others are either. That's why there have been numerous replicated tweets of this garbage. With few people agreeing with you other than on a scientific level. You should have left it at that. Instead of ending with a call to action. 

    I never said you didn't use a name. What the hell are you talking about? I made a comment about how anonymity is sometimes more honest than not. You misread the fact I was referring to myself not having a public agenda to score points. 

    You should be fired or at the least reprimanded for offending readers and assuming yourself haphazardly that I am not a business owner. 

  • Gregory Ciotti

    What about the what I proposed is unethical?

    One of the examples I listed, a nutritionist who "raise[s] their banners against greedy corporations who peddle overly processed foods filled with empty calories...", is somehow unethical to you?

    It's unethical for a brand to take a stance on something they believe in and oppose something they don't?

    That's not a 'cheap strategy', that's simply having a personality.

    I respect and understand if this isn't something you wish to engage it, but to attack this piece (which is what you did) under the guise that it doesn't work or is superficial is just plain wrong, which is why I called you out on it.

  • billboorman

    This is an interesting post, and very similar to what I'm finding in to research on culture branding, and why some employers become cults whilst others are just places of work. One of the key factors is a clear culture and an enemy. People are clearer over who they wouldn't want to work for rather than who they would. This is important when it comes to considering how to frame culture in on-line branding. This is more about getting people not to apply who won't be a fit than talent attraction because companies are overloaded with candidates.

  • BenGleck

    It's amazing how the author fails to see that bias arises as a result of how the questions are framed, which itself is a result of inherent bias, of taking a conclusion as an assumption and working backwards. Of course Apple users are shown to be "fanboys" when neuroscience reveals that the same areas of the brain that light up when thinking about religion also light up when Apple consumers think about Apple products--but the same analysis is not run on users of PCs or Android products. Under those circumstances, of course "Apple is for hip, young, creative people and the PC is for corporate drones." But then who interviews the majority of Apple users, whose sole interest is personal productivity, the primary selling point of Apple products from Day 1?

    As an entrepreneurial Apple user since 1984, my primary enemy in this matter is the same as Apple's: biased people like the author, who aren't particularly interested in the facts.

  • Gregory Ciotti

    I welcome criticism, but this comment is seriously wacky.

    You got so offended about my mention of Apple it's obvious to me that you didn't even LOOK at the research I cited and basically breezed through the rest of this article.

    Your 'argument' doesn't even make sense: what facts are wrong? Why would Android or PC users even matter in light of the studies I cited?

    I'm not picking on Apple (I enjoy their products) or critiquing how they build brand loyalty, I'm examining research that clearly shows how group formation is aided by a common cause and a common enemy.

    You were so excited to leave a retort defending Apple's honor that you missed the point of this entire article.