When Consumers Rebel: How Targeted Marketing Can Backfire

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"Choosy moms" have long been persuaded to buy Jif peanut butter. And sports lovers are continually targeted by ads persuading them to opt for DirecTV over other TV providers. But a new study suggests that brands can take this kind of targeted identity marketing too far and, in the process, isolate the very demographics they wish to woo.

The study — conducted by researchers at Dartmouth College, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and New York University — explores what happens when identity marketing misses the mark. The researchers concluded that, in certain scenarios, consumers feel that brands are too pushy in their marketing campaigns when they explicitly tell customers what to buy or how to behave. In these situations, consumers are actually less likely to want to buy the product being advertised, the study found. [10 Email Marketing Solutions for Small Businesses]

"While people may be drawn to brands that fit their identity, they are also more likely to desire a sense of ownership and freedom in how they express that identity," wrote Amit Bhattacharjee, Jonah Berger and Geeta Menon, co-authors of the study. "Identity marketing that explicitly links a person's identity with a brand purchase may actually undermine that sense of freedom and backfire."

The researchers' findings are based on five studies comparing two types of identity marketing: marketing that simply references consumer identity, and marketing that explicitly ties consumer identity to a brand purchase. Participants in the studies were asked to rate the importance of a particular identity to their overall perception of themselves. They then viewed an advertisement that either referenced this identity or specifically linked it to a brand.

The advertisements that explicitly linked a brand with a particular identity were found to be a big turnoff for consumers for whom that identity was important. In fact, some participants who associated strongly with one of the targeted identities reported that they were actually less likely to buy a company's product after viewing identity-explicit advertisements.

"Contrary to the traditional thinking about identity marketing, our research shows that people who care deeply about an identity are not receptive to messages that explicitly communicate how a brand fits with their lifestyle," the authors said in a statement.

The researchers found that pigeonholed consumers may even avoid purchasing a particular product just to reaffirm their own freewill.

"To restore their sense of freedom, some people may avoid purchasing a product that otherwise appeals to them and fits with who they are," the authors said.

Originally published on Business News Daily.