You Choose What to Buy Based on Social Identity

Brian James Rawson
August 18, 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 asking: “Why do you buy what you buy?” Why did you buy those shoes? Why those clothes? Why that computer? You might say you bought them because of the price or the features or the reviews, and that might be partly true. However, it’s absolutely not the full story. So, if price points and reviews don’t make you buy what you buy, what does? 

Products and Your Social Identity 

Your buying decisions are shaped by what YOU believe about yourself, but they're also shaped by what you want OTHER people to believe about you. 

To see this, let’s go back to an example from our last episode. In our last episode, we talked about how you buy Nike and Peloton because YOU BELIEVE (or want to believe) you’re an athletic person. However, it’s one thing to prove to yourself you’re an athletic person, but how do you prove it to everyone else? How do you get other people to believe what you believe…about you? 

You have to show them. To get them to believe it, they have to see it. But how do you show a belief? You show it through tangible behaviors and physical stuff. In other words, for people to believe you, they need to SEE what you do, and they need to SEE what you buy. For instance, for people to think of you as an athletic person, they need to see you jog at the gym, and they need to see the Nike swoosh on your chest. 

So you buy Nike’s to help you accomplish two massively important things. You buy them to help you validate your self-concept and your social-concept. In other words, you buy them to validate how you see yourself and to influence how other people see you. And whether you actually buy Nike’s or not, all of us - including me - do this. All of us buy stuff to influence our social reputation. 

But Why? Because stuff, products, and brands are extremely effective at creating your reputation. In fact, they’re so effective that they influence your reputation without you having to actually show your behaviors. For example, people don’t actually have to see you jog at the gym. They just have to see the Nike logo on your chest. 

And to understand why products and brands are so effective and why we use them so much, we need to talk about a few things. We need to talk about cognitive schemas, branding, assumptions, and repetition. 

Psychology, Brands, and Your Social Identity

First, we need to talk about cognitive schemas because they are the foundation for everyone’s self-concept and social reputation. Cognition schemas are the metaphorical folders in your mind where you store all of the information, beliefs, concepts, notions, and narratives you have about literally everything you’ve ever learned about. For example, right now you have a folder for you (your self-concept), but you also have a folder for “computers,” “chairs,” “turkey sandwiches,” “late night tv” and literally everything else in the entire world…including Nike. 

But how did Nike find its way into your brain in the first place? It got there through branding. Branding and cognitive schemas are deeply linked. Branding can’t exist without cognitive schemas, and cognitive schemas heavily rely on branding. But what is branding? Branding is the process of influencing what you put and don’t put in your cognitive schemas. Branding uses words and images to transport associations into your mind, and these associations then influence how you feel and what you think.

All of this is just a fancy way to say branding creates reputation. In fact, brand and reputation really mean the same thing. So branding means the process of creating a reputation, and creating a reputation is just another way to say creating a cognition schema. 

Now, capital “B” branding is when businesses strategically create a reputation. But all of us use the general, lowercase “b” process of branding every single day. All of us intentionally create a specific reputation. We just don’t call it that. Instead we call it: “making a good first impression.” 

But how do we make a good impression (or any impression for that matter)? Regardless if it’s uppercase or lowercase branding, if it’s Nike crafting their reputation or you trying to make a good first impression, creating a reputation relies on words and images, verbal and visual information. This may sound far fetched, but that’s because most people radically underestimate the power of words and images. 

Nike and Your Psychology 

Here’s an example. With just words, I can transport a picture into your mind right now: pink elephant. With just words and within milliseconds, I created an entire image within your mind. Now, the pink elephant you see in your mind’s eye may look different from the one I see, but that’s ok. We don’t have to see the same thing. We just need to see very similar things. 

It’s impossible to transport an identical, carbon copy image into each person’s mind, but it is possible to transport a nearly identical image. Two hundred different people can see a pink elephant and create 200 different, unique images of a pink elephant. And that’s ok, because the images are close enough that everyone can agree on what a pink elephant is and what it’s not. 

But what do pink elephants have to do with branding? Well, companies conjure pink elephants in your mind every single day. For example, through their branding, through their strategic use of words and images, Nike creates an image of itself in your mind and in my mind and in everyone else’s mind. Now, the Nike you see and the one I see may look different, but the two images are close enough for you and I to agree on what Nike is and what Nike is not. In other words, because of Nike’s branding, everyone has a similar cognitive schema (or mental folder) for Nike. For instance, everyone knows that Nike and athleticism go together. 

Repetition and Your Psychology 

But to see what all of this has to do with you, we need to add two more ingredients: repetition and assumptions. To influence the cognitive schema in your mind, branding uses strategic words and images. However, branding can’t just use these words and images once. It must use them over and over and over again. It’s through this repetition that branding creates a connection between a company and a concept, and thus influences how you think about that company. 

For example, how do you know Nike is athletic? How did that idea get there? It got there through the repetition of words and images. Nike has intentionally shown its name and logo alongside professional athletes over and over again for years now. For instance, Nike has partnered with Michael Jordan since 1984. That means for nearly forty years we’ve seen Nike and Michael Jordan side by side. 

And by seeing the Nike/Jordan combo over and over again, you make an association between the two. Through repetition, you form a connection between Nike and Jordan. However, you don’t know what the connect means. The connection and association is there. The line is drawn between the two, but the line is a blank slate, and if there’s one thing your psychology hates, it’s a blank slate. 

Assumptions and Your Psychology 

Why does your mind hate a blank slate? Because blank slates break patterns. Because of evolutionary psychology, our minds go through a constant process of pattern recognition and closure. Closure is when you see a pattern, but the pattern has missing pieces. When this happens, your mind cannot stand the blank space, so it closes the gap and fills in the blank. But what does this have to do with Nike? One way your brain closes the pattern is this….you make assumptions. 

When you see Nike and Jordan over and over again, your brain recognizes the pattern, makes the association that Nike and Jordan go together, and then your brain automatically fills in the pattern gap (the meaning of the pattern) by making assumptions. You assume Nike must be athletic. But you don’t actually (objective truth) know if Nike is athletic or not. You just guess. You just assume.

Psychology And Your Social Identity 

Well, guess what? This process of repetition and assumptions works for you too, and (whether you’re aware of it or not) all of us do our own version of this branding process every single day. To see how, let’s jump back to Nike. 

When other people see you with Nike over and over again, it’s just like when you see Nike and Jordan over and over again. When you see the repeated Nike/Jordan combo, you form a connection, recognize a pattern, and make an association: Nike, athletes and athletics go together. So, when people repeatedly see you with Nike, they also make a connection…that you and Nike go together. 

Said another way, people’s cognitive folders for you and Nike start to blend together. In other words, Nike’s reputation rubs off on you. People subtly fuse their feelings and beliefs about Nike with their feelings and beliefs about you. If I think Nike means “athletic” and you and Nike go together, then you must be athletic too. I have no proof that you’re athletic. I’ve never seen you run a marathon or play basketball or even go to the gym. But I don’t need too. Because my brain saves time by taking a shortcut, by making the assumption that you and Nike must be the same. If seeing Nike and Jordan means Nike is athletic, then seeing you wearing the Nike logo must mean you’re athletic too. 

Your Stereotypes, Branding, and Identity 

But if you didn’t catch it yet, this reputation blending process has a serious flaw. It doesn’t check the facts. It just makes assumptions. It doesn’t really know if you’re athletic or not. It just assumes. This process is why we all do Thin Slicing (an academic term you should go look up), and it’s why we all hold conscious and unconscious biases. 

In short, it’s why we judge a book by the cover. And even the most enlightened among us, do this. It’s just part of the hardwiring of our evolutionary psychology. That doesn’t mean Thin Slicing and biases are ok, but it does mean that fighting them is an uphill battle. 

Nike's Reputation and Your Identity 

So ethically disclaimer aside, this branding and assumption process is why you buy what you buy. You want the brand reputation of your stuff to rub off on you. You want people to see you together with Nike over and over again. That way people will start to blend how they feel about Nike with how they feel about you. 

Now the truth is Nike represents way more than just athletics. Nike represents certain ideas about race, class, region, and more. So this branding, assumptions, and reputation process is way more complicated than simple one to one arithmetic like Nike is athletics, so Nike plus you means you’re athletic. 

But to map out the multiple layers of reputation contained within every single item you buy would be exhausting. But, just because writing it down would be a lot of work, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The truth is our brains move so fast and process so much that we can recognize hundreds of intersecting reputation layers at once and process all of the layers faster than I can say this sentence. Our brains move so fast that it feels like you’re not making a choice when you buy what you buy. You just know that that product is what you want, even if you’re not really sure why you want it. 

But when you can slow down to see that your reputation, social-concept, and assumptions make you buy what you buy, you’ll see your purchases in a whole new light and learn an entirely new aspect of yourself. 


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