How Ingroup and Outgroup Branding Can Reach Key Customer Segments
Humans are tribal. We self-identify in countless different ways. I’ll use myself as an example. I live in Jacksonville. I’m an alumni of the University of Florida. I’m Jewish. I drive an electric car. I root for the Jaguars. I’m an eco-conscious shopper who prefers organic products. I’m a writer. I work in marketing. I’m a parent. I read the newspaper. I use Twitter and LinkedIn. The list could go on and on.
Some tribes skew more to the demographic (like the city I live in, my religion, my vocation and my industry). Some are more psychographic (that I’m eco-conscious and read the newspaper). Some tribes I proudly represent (I have more than one Jaguars shirt), other behaviors are less outwardly obvious. Some have a strong affect on my behavior (my religion) and others have a less powerful influence on my self-image (my choice of social media platforms).
Sociologists call these tribes ingroups, and people tend to favor their ingroup. They call the opposite of these tribes an outgroup, and people tend to look down on an outgroup.
At a deeper level, human tendency for social grouping can cause racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and a whole host of serious social ills. That is a serious issue beyond the scope of this article. I’m going to assume I’m writing to an ethical audience, move past those serious issues and keep this article focused on the marketer’s primary scope of conduct — influencing product choice.
In marketing, ingroups and outgroups can have a subconscious pull on brand and product choice that goes far deeper than a sober evaluation of features and functions. People either identify with a brand or they don’t. Potential customers feel that “people like me” are served by a brand or they feel that people or characteristics they don’t want to be associated with are represented by that brand.
While marketers often send explicit messages, along the lines of “we have a good product for you that you should buy,” they can also appeal to a customer's sense of ingroup and outgroup in more subtle yet powerful ways, sometimes considered "subconscious" signaling.
Finding Your Brand’s Tribe
The first step in a value proposition workshop is to identify your brand’s ideal customer(s). Which customers can your brand serve best? Which customers does it want to serve? What appealing value does your brand have for these customers? And how can your brand credibly communicate that value?
Except in very rare instances (the local electric utility, for example), your brand shouldn’t try to serve every possible customer. The marketplace is crowded. A bland “everything to everyone” marketing message gets you nowhere and isn’t credible. You have to decide which customers your brand shouldn’t serve. Which ingroups is your brand part of, and which outgroups does it counter? This will help everyone who works on your brand communicate the value proposition in literal messaging as well as with subconscious signals.
Brands (Intentionally and Unintentionally) Communicate which Ingroups They Belong to and Which Outgroups They Oppose
Here’s an extreme example. I’ve been in a dollar store. And I’ve been in a jewelry store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. At the dollar store, the carpet was stained. There were few employees. And the ones in the store were harried. At the jewelry store on Rodeo Drive you couldn’t just enter the store. You had to be buzzed past a locked door after an intimidating looking security guard in a dark, well-tailored suit wearing an earpiece gave you the once over, spoke into a microphone up his sleeve, and opened the door for you.
None of the above is marketing copy, but it sent a very clear yet unspoken message. The dollar store’s ingroup is low price seekers. There is an outgroup that just wouldn’t be comfortable there and isn’t meant to be. The jewelry store’s ingroup is the status conscious, and there is a low-price seeking outgroup that wouldn’t even feel comfortable walking up to the guard.
You see this come through in marketing as well. Plenty of white space and a logo with generous kerning usually send positive signals to a luxury-seeking ingroup, while a crowded layout with bold red fonts and starbursts send positive signals to a cost-conscious ingroup. Small font size and garish colors with loud modern music in a video ad signal to a youth-oriented ingroup just like large font size on a white background with classical or “oldies” music signals to an older ingroup in a TV ad. Word choices like “shindig” and “cookin’” signal to a more informal ingroup while “artisan” and “exquisite” signal to an ingroup focused on proper rules of decorum.
In other words, it’s not just what you say in your marketing. It’s how you say it.
And Then, Everything Changed
There are many examples of signaling to ingroups and outgroups that are not controversial. Your brand simply identifies a segment it serves well. Sometimes it chooses to specifically alienate an outgroup to signal that it is for a specific ingroup. Most of this is not controversial.
However, in the last two years or so politics has played a huge role in ingroup/outgroup signaling for brands. It always existed on some level, but has ramped up more recently. (It’s also worth noting that politicians are masters — some better than others of course — at leveraging ingroup/outgroup signaling. They also inherently know they’re not trying to capture 100% of potential customers…just enough to get elected).
Lower Risk Ingroup Signaling
Some signaling is lower risk. For example, The New York Times launched its “Truth is Hard” brand campaign shortly after the 2016 Presidential election. It leveraged ingroup/outgroup signaling targeting people who were supporters of journalism. Even though it had political overtones, this was fairly low risk because the newspaper has likely identified its ideal customer as someone who values journalism enough to pay for it.
But by taking an ingroup/outgroup approach and clearly signaling against the enemies of journalism (from politicians to free sources of news), the newspaper of record has made buying the paper more than a purchase of information, but an act of ingroup signaling by customers — and in so doing reduced price elasticity with its value proposition messaging for a product that had often been viewed as a commodity. Not only has The New York Times driven an increase in subscriptions, it has also generated ecommerce sales through its store to help customers publicly identify as the ingroup.
Higher Risk Ingroup Signaling
Nike had a recent foray into ingroup and outgroup signaling when it decided to have former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a spokesperson in its recent advertising campaign which lead with the headline “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
For The New York Times, a firm understanding of the ideal customer and value proposition produced a natural ingroup. In Nike’s example, the ideal customer lies in both the ingroups and outgroups it created with the ad campaign.
Nike’s value proposition revolves around an active lifestyle and association with teams and athletes — from the elite to the obscure — that embody this lifestyle. It’s “Just Do It” campaigns created an ingroup of active people, and an outgroup of couch potatoes (but aspirational couch potatoes who want to look active in a likely attempt to identify with the ingroup as well).
In embracing Kaepernick, who is known for his pre-game protests, the brand created a large outgroup of people who disagreed with Kaepernick yet were previously an ideal customer for Nike. This is one reason why creating ingroups and outgroups is more challenging for larger brands — they simply have a larger and more diverse pool of potential customers.
On the positive side, the behemoth sports brand was able to intensify a larger affinity with its ingroup.
It’s not wrong to take a risk like this, but brands need to have a firm understanding of their value proposition at all four levels to take a calculated risk with their ads, customer types, product, and overall brand and not just stumble into a controversy.
Did the gamble pay off for Nike? Most reporting on the subject suggests it did. And it seems to have gotten a better response than similar efforts at ingroup/outgroup signaling by other giant brands — most notably the stumble by Pepsi in its Kendall Jenner protest ad and Gillette’s controversial campaign around toxic masculinity.
Don’t Forget One Last Vital Ingroup — Your Employees
When signaling to ingroups and outgroups in your marketing campaigns, keep in mind that your own employees might reside in either of those groups. With the competition for talent fierce in a robust job market — especially marketing talent — its important to consider this vital constituency as well.
One approach for marketing leaders would be to engage their departments with in-person team training around identifying and crafting effective messaging, and use that as a launchpad for crafting a clear value proposition that you then roll out to key agencies and other marketing partners. Inherent in that value prop is a clear definition of the ideal customer(s) and how to best serve them. When you get your entire team aligned around that value and clearly communicate it, you can then unleash their creative skills on creating the right campaign that provides clear, effective messaging without any unintended subconscious signals that could alienate employees and customers.
Daniel Burstein is the Senior Director, Content and Marketing at MECLABS Institute. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the marketing direction for MECLABS — digging for actionable discoveries while serving as an advocate for the audience.