See How We All Use Consumerism to Validate Our Identity

Brian James Rawson
July 14, 2023

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Listen to the episode above. Read the transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Owl Street Studio Podcast, where we talk about how marketing and design affect the unexpected areas of our lives.

Today, we're looking at our buying decisions. Have you ever thought about why you buy what you buy? What made you get that car? Why that toothpaste? Why that pair of shoes? Maybe you’ve never thought about it (which is ok), but we think about it all the time. Marketers are constantly contemplating what makes you buy what you buy. And do you want to know what we know…about you? You buy what you buy because of what you believe - specifically what you believe (and wish to believe) about yourself and what you want others to believe about you. (Don’t worry, I do this too. In fact, we all do this, and here’s how.)  

How Do You Know Who You Are?

This whole process starts with your self-concept which is what you believe to be true about your personality, character, and social standing. 

To help understand this, think of your mind as a computer. If your mind is a computer, your self-concept is like a folder on the desktop, and inside this folder you put all of the information, beliefs, ideas, concepts, notions, and narratives you have about yourself. This self-concept folder is called a cognitive schema. And, in fact, we create folders (cognitive schemas) like this for our self-concept and for literally everything else in the entire world. In your mind right now, you have a folder for “chairs” and for “computers” and for “pasta” and for everything else you’ve ever learned about in your entire life. 

But, in regards to your self-concept, how do you know that what you’ve filed away is actually true? How do you really know if you’re introverted, extroverted, trendy, or traditional? And this question of “how do I know who am I”  is where marketing connects to your psychology. 

We Buy Stuff To Prove Who We Are

In our culture, we answer the question of “how do I know who I am” like this: we buy stuff (a lot of stuff). In other words, we buy stuff to validate our private beliefs. Again, your self-concept stems from your private beliefs about yourself. But for these private beliefs to hold true, you must validate them. For instance, it’s one thing to believe you’re “a frugal person.” But how do you really know? How do you validate that belief? Well, you buy generic brands. You save coupons. You mail in rebates. You search the clearance racks. 

We Use Consumerism To Validate Our Feelings

But, just because you used a coupon doesn’t automatically mean you saved money. And just because you buy clearance, doesn’t automatically mean you’re good with budgeting. We’re not bashing on Sale Seekers. The point here is that your self-concept and private beliefs are not objective truth. They’re subjective feelings. You FEEL like a good budgeter when you buy clearance, and you FEEL like a savvy shopper when you save coupons. And when you feel something long enough and strong enough, you begin to believe it. 

We Use Consumerism To Support Our Beliefs 

This private validation process creates a cycle. Our feelings create our beliefs: “I feel like a good budgeter, so I believe I’m a frugal person.” Then, our beliefs create our behaviors: “I believe I’m a frugal person, so I must buy generic brands.” And our behaviors create our feelings: “Because I buy generic brands, I feel like a good budgeter.” 

Thus, our self-concept rides this endless loop of beliefs, behaviors, and feelings, but this loop is delicate. If any of the three sections misfires, the whole thing collapses. For instance, from the example above, what if there are no generic brands? We take generic brands for granted, but “generic” is an invention. Generic brands as we know them have only been around since the mid-1970s. 

So in a world without generic brands, how do you prove you're frugal? Of course, there are other ways you can prove that, but our point here is to illustrate how much we use brands and stuff to validate our self-concept. To further see this, let’s look at another example and look at the validation loop from another perspective. 

We Use Consumerism To Generate Our Behaviors 

So far, we’ve looked at the belief and feeling side of the loop, but now let’s look at the behavior side. Just as feelings and beliefs create behaviors, behaviors create beliefs and feelings. In this way, your self-concept is malleable. You can alter how you see yourself by changing your behaviors. 

For instance, right now, imagine that you don’t think of yourself as “athletic,” but you want to see yourself that way. Well, how do you create this new belief? How do you modify your self-concept to include “athletic.” You create new behaviors. You start exercising and jogging and so on, but how does that apply to brands and marketing? Well, just as you start new physical behaviors, you also start new buying behaviors. For instance, how do you prove to yourself you’re “athletic”? You buy a Peloton. You buy a pair of Nike’s. You buy LuLuLemon. 

But remember, your self-concept isn’t objective truth. It’s subjective feelings. So, it doesn’t matter if you actually use the Peloton or actually jog in your LuluLemon outfit. It doesn't matter what you actually do with what you buy. What matters is how what you buy makes you feel.

What matters is that when you look at your new Peloton you FEEL athletic, but for this feeling to transform into a belief you have to experience the feeling long enough and strong enough. So though your new Peloton makes you feel “athletic,” this isn’t enough to fully cement the new feeling into a belief. To do that, you have to buy more “athletic” stuff and more and more and more. You need to buy more “athletic” stuff until the feeling is reinforced long and strong enough to become a fully internalized belief and a new addition to your self-concept. 

You Use Marketing To Create Your Identity 

But how does all of this connect to marketing and branding? Well, Nike knows how your self-concept works. They know about your feelings, beliefs, and behavior cycle. That's why they methodically cultivated a deep connection between their products and the idea of “athleticism” to the point that Nike has intentionally become a symbol for the entire concept of athletics. 

And once you become that, once you become a symbol, you’ll get die-hard, loyal customers, your customers will buy from you over and over again, and your customers will pay whatever price you ask. Why? Because without you, their self-concept falls apart. Without you, they face the existential crisis of “how do I prove who I am?”. Without Nike and Peloton, how do you prove you’re "athletic"? Plus, for new behaviors to turn into a new belief, your customers have to buy your stuff over and over and over again. One pair of Nike’s doesn't prove you’re "athletic." But having dozens of pairs plus full Nike gym outfits and athletic wear, now you believe you’re "athletic." 

So (in an abstract but very real way) brands, marketing, and stuff help people figure out who they are. Why? Because in our culture, we rely heavily on consumerism to prove who we are to ourselves and to others. And when you realize this, when you realize that most (if not all) of your buying decisions are based on what you believe about yourself and what you want others to believe about you, you can step back and see your purchases in a whole new light and learn an entirely new aspect of yourself. 

Now, we’re not saying our culture's system of consumerism is right, and we’re not saying buying things based on what you want to believe about yourself is wrong. We’re simply explaining some of the hidden forces that move through our everyday lives and affect each and every one of us.

Now, explaining how to turn a brand into a lifestyle symbol is for a whole other article. Likewise, explaining the full intricacies of cognitive behavioral psychology would take an entire series of its own. So, for today, we simply hope that this brief explanation helps you see the connection between beliefs, branding, and buying. And we hope it helps you take a moment to reflect on what you believe, why you believe it, and why you buy what you buy. 


History of Generic Brands by 99 Percent Invisible 

Cognitive Schema Definition by American Psychological Association


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