Identity and Fandom What You Need To Know

The following article is the first of a new series from Leflein Associates. We will highlight new ways in which media consumption and gratifications are influenced by “consumer disposition” or psychological factors such as personality, temperament, mood management, identity, emotions and other processes. This series entitled “Culture Matters Experts” will reveal how the social and behavioral sciences inspire us to provide our clients with even more in-depth consumer insights.

For this week’s post, we are taking a look at Identity Theory.


Apple Envy

What business is not at least a little bit envious of the incredibly long lines of eager consumers outside Apple stores waiting for the latest i-gadget? What are the group norms compelling this “Cult of Mac”? These devoted Apple/Mac brand loyalists think of themselves as a close-knit “in-group” with a strong social bond (Jansson-Boyd, 2010). Their motivated and co-coordinated actions in the context of group identity lead to these infamous “Apple Lines.” The concept of Identity Theory can provide insight and perspective to explain this phenomenon.

What can we learn from Identity Theory?

Do you know what it means to be you?

According to distinguished sociologist Peter J. Burke, Identity is a set of meanings that define who we are to establish a clear sense of self. Think of these meanings as the many different hats any one of us may put on throughout our lives as we interact with the people and environment around us. Some of these meanings are relatively obvious such as a particular role in society (e.g., family member, profession/vocation), a member of a specific group (e.g., political group, ethnic group), or a particular characteristic (e.g., tech geek, health conscious). However, some of these meanings exist primarily in people’s minds and are not salient or evident to the outside world (e.g., action hero, supermom). These hidden selves may include the fabled “aspirational self” many advertisers have leveraged in their messaging over the years.

These multiple roles, groups, and categories that people acquire throughout life help to establish a stable yet flexible model of behavior, providing us with guidance and influencing our decisions in everyday activities including media and consumer choices.

The Basis of Identity 

Identity represents a person’s self-knowledge, including occupying each particular role along with the performance expectations of that role. In other words, Identity is our self-concept; it tells us how we are supposed to behave in any given situation.

Social Identity (SI), one part of self-concept, represents a person’s knowledge of belonging to one or more particular social category or group, along with the value and emotional significance of being in that group. SI essentially can provide a strong sense of who someone is in the context of a group or culture.

The central insight of these two concepts is that it is possible for people to feel better about themselves when associated with specific groups, to feel more confident in particular roles, and to find themselves in situations that require identity verification in authentic ways. This process of identity verification can lead to highly motivated actions – including media decisions.

What does this mean for media brands?

Identity and social identity can be strong influences of why people seek out and engage with different types of media content. Identity-based gratification may involve using media to reinforce beliefs, values, customs, rituals, social norms and other significant cultural artifacts.

In the case of social identity, it is possible that viewers self-select, as our colleagues at Hulu would say, programs and content that validate their group identities by either socially comparing themselves with other unfavorable groups, or consuming content featuring positive portrayals of the in-groups they belong to. The recent record-breaking Hollywood blockbuster, Black Panther, is a timely and relevant illustration of this process, as some African-Americans intimated in various media think pieces as feeling a strong sense of pride and self-esteem because of its empowering and progressive portrayals of people from African heritage and themes of Afrofuturism in authentic ways.

Some of our recent work with WE tv, a niche media brand with a significant viewership of diverse women, explored the critical role that self-esteem plays in the identity development of the empowered woman. We also looked at the gratifications WE tv’s empowered female audiences experience when watching programs aligned with their core values including family, and attitudes reflecting the feeling of “being comfortable in their own skin.”

At Leflein Associates, we strengthen market research with an anthropological mindset, by engaging in radically empathetic methods of attaining a more profound understanding of audiences through qualitative research. As a result, media brands have more opportunities to foster social identities with unique attitudes and behaviors that go beyond the standard emotional profiles.

Strategists, creatives, advertisers, and programmers can work to design and develop compelling emotional content and experiences to leverage these different audience groups to help create relevant and authentic engagement of brands’ messaging, commercials, and other assets. As we’ve discovered in some of our in-depth qualitative research, avid fans of engaging companies don’t necessarily think of them in the context of “brands,” but more like “a lifestyle.” Identity may be one of the keys to unlocking the door to ultimate fandom.


Jansson-Boyd, C. V. (2010). Consumer psychology. Open University Press/McGraw-Hill.


Andreas Jackson Strategist


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