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  • Maria Barbieri

Identity provides a great opportunity. Will you grasp it?

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Identity drives behaviours. The implications of this finding, which has now been proven by many researches and studies, are huge although often overlooked. Regardless of whether you work in Marketing, Sales or Communications your results are highly impacted by the ability to influence and motivates others. Yet, quite often we tend to ignore practises that can help shift behaviours.

Understanding the role that identity plays in your life brings benefits at both professional and personal level. Here are a few examples…

Unity: the newest Influence Principle

The power of identities is such that Roberto Cialdini, the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, whose research and coaching focus on persuasion and social influence, was prompted to add a 7th Principle, Unity, and write a follow up book Pre-suasion to his already extremely popular and impactful book Influence. In the first book he presented 6th principles of influence, which I believe most people working in marketing, communications and sales are quite familiar with. Those are: Reciprocity, Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority and Scarcity. Should you not be aware of Cialdini’s work, it’s never too late to fil the gap.

The Unity Principle, which is the newest one, in Cialdini’s words states: “People say yes to you if you can show them that you share with them an important personal or social identity, that is that you’re a member of one of their “we” groups. In other words that you’re not just like them but you’re one of them. And in the boundaries of those “we” groups all resistance to influence declines. People don’t say no, they don’t reject the people who are of them nearly as much as the people who are outside of those boundaries.”

This is not about similarity ( which can still be influential, but under the Liking principle ) as much as it is about belonging together. “It’s about shared identities.”

This means that to persuade people, you can appeal to a number of common characteristics with regard to identity. “These categories can be shared location, ethnic or political or religious or community or workplace or even athletic team identities”. But also, other factors can be emphasized to build unity. With a little creativity, you can find a factor that will unite you with your customer.

And if they consider it genuine and recognizable, you will have a greater chance of receiving a positive response to proposals or recommendations. When we belong, or feel we belong to a group, we’re likely to be more open to persuasion attempts.

Community building and the power of word of mouth

We have seen that the principle of unity is triggered by the recognition of “that person is one of us”. This means that, in the context of business, community building and facilitation, which involves creating a shared sense of purpose, values, and identity among members of a group, provides a powerful way to harness this principle to attract and retain customers.

Communities can be fostered through various means such as social media, forums and events. By facilitating these types of interactions, businesses can create a sense of belonging and connection with their customers and prospects , and also provide a platform for them to share their experiences and learn from their peers. Moreover, the concept of social proof and word of mouth can further enhance the effectiveness of community. As a business, what you say and what you do matters but you can have a much larger impact if you can get other people to talk about your stuff. Potential customers are more likely to trust the recommendations of their peers. When customers feel a strong connection to a brand or community, they are more likely to become brand advocates and share their positive experiences with others.

Jonah Berger, professor at Wharton School and bestselling author, and who I had the pleasure to listen to in a number of podcasts, provides useful insights regarding the power of word of mouth and the impact language has on behaviours. We see that to drive word of mouth from customers, in addition to facilitate community building, it’s important to keep in mind the concept of “social currency” and the idea that people share what they think makes them look good. In other words, they will only share what they believe will maintain or boost their reputation in the eyes of their peers.

So, when delivering a message, it pays off to also think about how the audience will look if they tell people about it and how does your message impact them. Because the better that’s going to make them look, the more likely they’ll be to talk about it and share it.

Language shapes reality. Words to matter.

Linguistic research shows that language shapes people, culture and behaviour. Did you know that depending on weather you use a verb or a noun to describe someone can have huge implication on the outcome of their actions?

This is because verbs are action words well suited to portray transient behaviours that can and do change, whereas nouns are more associated with fixed identities and more more-stable traits.

The moment we label our self in a specific way we tend to stick with those labels and the behaviours that go with them.

Henry Ford’s quote “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right” comes handy here.

Research shows that if we label ourselves as a runner we are more likely to do it rather than saying we are someone that runs. Similarly, if you call someone a voter it’s s more likely he/she is going to vote as opposed to addressing them as someone who votes.

The same is true on the opposite side. Losing is bad, but being a loser it’s even worse. Cheating is bad, but being a cheater is even worse.

So, if it’s a positive attribute you want to label yourself as a noun, if it’s negative use the verb.

This means that by turning actions into identities, you will have greater chance to succeed in motivating others in adopting a specific behaviour.

Identity-based Habits shape behaviour

Identities can also help us in achieving our goals. James Clear, world-renowned habits expert, covers the topic extensively in his extremely popular book, Atomic Habit.

In the book we see that “If want to learn how to commit to our goals in the long-term, we have to develop an identity that drives the behaviours we need to achieve them. The key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating a new identity first. This is because your current behaviours are simply a reflection of your current identity. Therefore, to change your behaviour for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself.

According to the author, a change in identity represents the deepest and more effective way of the three levels at which change can occur. The other being a change in your outcomes and a change in your processes. Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.

Building identity-based habit might sounds difficult but it can actually be achieved by following the two steps:

1. Decide the type of person you want to be.

2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.

In simple words, the recipe for sustained success starts by focusing on who you wish to become.

Final thoughts

Whether you need to design customer behaviour or your own habits, a better understanding of how identities shapes reality and behaviours will give you a greater chance to succeed.

Moreover, regardless of the context you operate in ( B2B or B2C), it’s key to remember that ultimately on both side of the fence you have a real human being with its on need, emotions and desires…and of course an Identity.

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