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Social networking ads impel us to identify with brands

Facebook is a great place to advertise. And not only because of its celebrated ability to tap the vast quantities of personal information hundreds of millions of us share each day.

It’s also because we tend to like brands—any brands—that appear on our personal pages, in close proximity to a positive expression of our selves. The more we like ourselves, the more we like those brands.

That’s a key finding of a new paper co-authored by Mark Forehand, associate professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. The paper investigates the subtlest of ways that marketers can lead consumers to personally identify with a given brand.

“The vast majority of marketing exposures are experienced under conditions of low attention and little cognitive involvement,” says Forehand. “This research demonstrates that brand identification can form even in these low-involvement conditions if the brand is merely presented simultaneously with self-related information.”

Me, myself and I

The ultimate goal of many marketing campaigns is getting consumers to identify with the brand—to feel that this iPad or Volkswagen Jetta or Red Bull was expressly made for me. It’s a tall order, usually requiring consumers to interact with the brand in some meaningful, conscious way.

But Forehand and co-author Andrew Perkins (of the University of Western Ontario) wanted to learn just how subtly they could create a personal connection between consumer and brand.

In a first experiment, they asked participants to sort fictitious brand names with terms related to either “self” or “other.” Their attitudes toward the “self” brands were more positive. A second study established that the effect was stronger for individuals who possessed higher self-esteem.

A third study demonstrated that the effect occurs even when brands are simply presented near the personal content on a consumer’s social networking site. Participants compared banner ads for different fictional automobile brands that appeared on their own Facebook profile page and the profile pages of strangers on Facebook and a competing social networking site. When asked, they strongly preferred the brands that appeared on their own pages—without being aware that they had even noticed them.

“The car brands did not benefit directly from being on Facebook over another social networking site,” Forehand says, “but rather from their proximity to consumers’ personal content.”

Positive ID

How can brand identification be activated by so slight an association? Credit a concept that the authors call “implicit self-referencing.” It suggests that consumers don’t need to own, choose or endorse a brand to identify with it.

When a brand’s attributes become associated with a consumer’s self-concept, Forehand believes that some degree of the consumer’s self-esteem automatically rubs off onto the brand. The greater the self-esteem, the more positive the attitude toward the brand.

It begins with a personal association. And, as the study demonstrates, that association can be created very subtly, even passively, wherever a consumer has a heightened sense of self.

“Any advertisement that evokes the self is going to be more likely to make that kind of connection. But that’s not a new insight,” Forehand says. “What is new is just how trivially that connection can occur. Stripping away all of the other reasons why a consumer might identify with a brand, we’ve found that simply making that non-conscious connection between self and product—even when there is no ownership, no use, no endorsement—still has a positive effect.”

Facebook. MySpace. LinkedIn. Twitter. YouTube. Pinterest. These bustling networks that didn’t exist a decade ago have become the most public expression of our collective self-esteem. They’re also a fertile environment in which to advertise.

“Because consumers are increasingly comfortable posting a wealth of personal information,” Forehand adds, “social networking provides a particularly rich domain for achieving positive brand identification through these subtle associations.”

Implicit Self-Referencing: The Effect of Non-Volitional Self-Association on Brand and Product Attitude” is forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research.