Over a century ago, William James argued that the self includes many things outside of one’s self, including social relationships and material things. More recently, cognitive science has shown that we tend to subsume the personality and values of the people we feel close to. The result is self-other overlap, whereby the mental representations of our own identity begin to merge with our perceptions of someone else.
And so, inevitably, to Donald Trump. I’ve yet to come across a completely compelling explanation of why he won in 2016 or how he continues to defy gravity. Socioeconomic status doesn’t hack it – Hillary actually polled better among the least advantaged groups. Nor does gender – a surprisingly high percentage of women voted for a man who many regard as misogynist. Race was a stronger indicator, although Republican candidates have a woeful record among African Americans and Hispanics, and Trump fared no worse than other recent presidential hopefuls.
‘Identity’ seems a more plausible and intriguing explanation. I’m talking here about the process whereby an individual defines himself by adopting a set of values, and affirms that choice via identification with like-minded people (and possibly through non-identification with those who don’t share these values).
In US bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, the author recounts vividly a childhood experience:
I remember sitting in that busy courtroom, with half a dozen other families all around, and thinking they looked just like us. The moms and dads and grandparents didn’t wear suits like the lawyers and the judge. They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and tee shirts. And it was the first time I noticed “TV accents” – the neutral accent that so many news anchors had. The social workers and the judge and the lawyers all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected to it were not.
Now look at some of the things Trump voters said about their candidate:
‘He seems to speak my language’
‘He’s my kind of a guy’
‘He stands up for what I believe in’
Such sentiments are not unique to Trump, but where he clearly stands out from other candidates is in his ability to both project and personify a set of values with which many in the US identify – creating the kind of self-other overlap described earlier. A presidential system lends itself to this kind of ‘identity politics’ (because people vote for an individual as much as a party), but even in parliamentary systems an individual politician’s charisma, or lack of it, can have a big influence on the electoral outcome.
So, if self-other overlap is such a powerful driver of success in politics, does this also apply to brands? And if you wanted to project and personify values that truly resonate, can you be sure that the values you’ve chosen for your brand are the right ones?
The short answer to both questions is yes. Because brands also act as relationship partners, it raises the intriguing prospect that they too create overlap with the psychological self, with brand lovers identifying with the values that their brand represents. So my company has developed and successfully tested a new approach which measures the psychological overlap of brands with the people who love (and don’t love) them. It uses a new metric called Self-Brand Overlap™ (SBO) which quantifies the psychological distance between self and the perceived personality of a brand. It is also able, at a truly granular level of detail, to predict those values that actually drive brand love.
What we’ve discovered is that those who love a brand do tend to identify strongly with its values. And what really defines the most successful brands is their ability to ‘match’ their lovers on the values they hold dear. Take The Daily Mail – a hugely successful print media brand that strongly polarises opinion. Its ‘haters’, predictably, see themselves as far more intelligent than the title and don’t identify with it. For lovers, on the other hand, the intellectual pitch is spot on – what the brand offers is a perfect match with how its readers see themselves. It’s those in the middle, however – the ‘indifferents’ – who offer the real challenge, because to share their values might require a change of direction: maybe ‘dialling up’ intelligent and sympathetic, while ‘dialling down’ some other values. For this classic marketing dilemma – stick or shift – our approach maps a way forward, handing marketers the code they need to re-engineer their brand’s values to reach out to the unconverted.
It’s become a commonplace to talk about the importance of emotional connection – feeling, if you will – in driving brand growth. But feeling is made up of many parts, and in order to be better at influencing it, we need to be able to measure those things which drive it in a much more granular way.
One of the key measures of emotional connection should, in our opinion, be shared values. So ask yourself: if this is a trump card, ha