Literature Review

Social Identity Theory and the Making of Apple People

Social Identity Theory

Attaining positive self-image and self-definition is perhaps one of the foremost objectives for individuals in society (Tajfel, 1974). An individual’s perceived skills and value form his or her self-image (“Self-esteem,” 2012) and expand to encompass relations to other people (“Human behaviour,” 2012).  Observable features characterize the very young child’s identity, and during the maturation process, that identity evolves to include intangible concepts (“Human behaviour,” 2012).

In the late 1960s and 1970s, psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner hypothesized that intergroup relations, and the ways in which individuals categorize themselves relative to those groups, play a role in creating individuals’ positive self-image (Jackson, 2010).  They suggest that among the intangible concepts that help form a sense of identity are the social groups to which one belongs (Scott, 2011). Individuals place a value on belonging to a particular group and that value has an emotional basis (Reed, 2002).  The group may be formal or informal.  For example, a student may admire the members of a club or organization—a formal, defined group—and membership in that organization provides the student a sense of self-fulfillment and personal comfort.   Or a group could be more informal groupings such as residents of city, state, country or neighborhood, people who root for a sports team, live in a particular type of home or drive a particular type of car.   It is the individual’s perception of that group and their relation to it that is key to self-definition.

Self-definition derived from social group membership forms the basis of social identity theory (Jackson, 2010).  Social identity theory contends that individuals acquire a sense of self through their engagement in group situations (Brown, 1999).  According to the theory, individuals become part of groups or seek to join groups that will contribute to a positive self-perception, and an individual will leave a group that ceases to meet those needs for positive self-perception (Tajfel, 1974).  Groups operate within a broader society, amid numerous other groups, and the positive or negative perceptions or competition between groups impact an individual’s self-perception (Tajfel, 1974).  Social identity theory suggests that individuals strive for a positive social identity, and that positive social identity arises from judgments made between groups (Brown, 2000).  Individuals may identify themselves in multiple groups and will move between groups as internal and external perceptions of self and of the groups evolve.  As individuals join groups, they are not static within the group, they interact and evolve, taking on traits of the group, ultimately adding to their self-esteem (West & Hennessey, 1999).  Conversely, individuals construct self-identification by avoiding association with some social groups (Scott, 2007).

Social identity theory’s explanation of the use of groups to define one’s self also offers insight into ingroup biases (Brown, 2000).  By associating with one group, individuals make a valuation between groups, and make decisions to promote the group that brings that esteem.  While this bias can build a platform for productive action, bigotry, acts of discrimination, bias, collective behavior, rebellion, and other topics are all studied through the lens of social identity theory as research seeks to understand better human behavior and decision-making (Jackson, 2010).

Social Identity Theory in Organizations

Recent social identity research suggests that one’s organizational identity is a stronger factor in building identity than in non-work settings (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005).  As business organizations increasingly focus on teamwork as an operating principle, the concepts of social identity theory provide a framework for understanding how teams or groups interact and perform in the organizational environment (West & Hennessey, 1999).  In the organizational setting, social identity theory is evident in the way individuals interact within the various groups in the organization, adopting the language and culture of groups in much the same way that individuals co-opt the values and characteristics of the group (Scott, 2007). Within organizations, individuals can identify with the organization itself, with work groups or broader industry and professional groups (West & Hennessey, 1999).  An example of this might be how an attorney in a corporate environment might identify with the organization itself, a cross functional work group, the legal organization within that company, or a broader legal organization in the local or national level, each offering a different opportunity for self-definition.

While organizational groups provide opportunities for individuals to gain identity within the organization, efforts to mitigate and mediate these groups can sidetrack attention from delivering on organizational objectives (Hennessey & West, 1999).  Social identity theory suggests that self-identification with a group necessarily creates an ingroup and an out group.  At the organizational level, the allocation of resources can be impacted by this ingroup bias to the detriment of the overall organization (Hennessey & West, 1999).  Organizations must understand social identity theory and these potential difficulties to their advantage in building organizational culture.

Marketers use social identity theory to understand consumers’ purchasing decisions and company and brand loyalty (Lam, Ahearne, & Schillewaert, 2010). Lam et al. (2010) extended social identity theory to examine how customers identify themselves or gain a positive sense of self relative to a brand or company, or customer-brand identification.  Customer-company identification, which is based on social identity theory, suggests that customers’ identification with a company is more durable when consumers perceive that the company and ownership of its products fulfill needs for self-image (Bhattacharya & Sen, 2003). Furthermore, strong customer-company identification derives from customers’ perception that they share attributes with a company (Lam, et al, 2010). This identification with a brand is critical for marketing, as research has shown that customers’ strong social identification with a brand will survive negative press, recalls and other disruptions (Lam et al., 2010). Identity prestige, distinctiveness, knowledge and trustworthiness are all factors that help build customer-company identification or a consumer’s social identity as a member of that company’s consumer group.

Social Identity Theory and Consumers

Early conceptual frameworks in consumer behavior (Grubb & Hupp, 1968; Grubb & Stern, 1971) tried to link self-theory as it was developing in the behavioral sciences, to product meanings and brand images. This is an important application, because in the context of consumption behavior, so much of who we are as individuals in terms of our self-esteem and our social status is also tied up in the products we consume (Levy, 1959). Any potential social-identity based theory of consumption decision-making starts with the idea that consumers may perceive themselves in terms of these various levels of abstraction (Tajfel, 1959) and at any given point in time will have available a subset of social categories that can become a part of their working or spontaneous self-concept (Markus & Kunda, 1986). Such a perspective borrows from social cognition’s view of the self, but with specificity as to what is meant by the various types of selves that may become activated in a particular situation (Reed, 2002).

Additionally, a social-category point of view also has the advantage that it takes into account the developmental importance of the various identities that may guide consumer decisions (Reed, 2002). Social categories are internal mental representations that can become a basic part of how consumers view themselves, and so a theory of consumption decision-making that involves social identity might use the term salience to refer simply to the extent that a social identity is an activated conceptual structure in the consumer’s working self-concept (Reed, 2002). Even if a social identity is salient and self-important to the consumer, it might not be a basis for a consumer decision. The social identity must be relevant to the object that is to be evaluated or the judgment that is to be made (Reed, 2002).

Holt (2004) suggests that organizations need to utilize three methods to create an iconic brand.  Firstly, there needs to be “mind share.” Holt provides the beer company Corona’s relatable image of sitting on a beach sipping a Corona as something consumers can relate to and desire. Secondly, there needs to be an emotional connection to the brand. Holt provides Coke as example; during WWII Coke was able to identify itself as part of the war effort, and represented what soldiers overseas missed about home. Finally, Holt refers to “viral” branding. Consumers attach themselves to brands strongly when they find the brand on their own, and are not sold on the brand or product, thus creating “identity value” for the brand. If these steps are followed, it is possible to create an iconic brand, something that can be remembered throughout history, which also keeps the brand moving ahead, as it intertwines within the cultural fabric (Holt, 2004).

Apple is notable both as an iconic brand and for its connection to social identity theory (Bhattacharya & Sen, 2003).  With its marketing campaigns in print and on TV, unique product design and a public relations strategy that built a cult-like following, Apple developed a subculture of consumers known as “Apple People.” How does social identity theory provide a theoretical framework for this phenomenon?

The Making of Apple People

In a 2008 survey, Apple topped the list of brands that consumers can’t live without (Sanderson, 2008). The survey of 2,000 respondents in 107 countries demonstrates Apple’s global reach, its “inspiring” brand qualities and the degree to which it has become inextricably woven into contemporary culture. The perception of being hip had a huge impact on this success, and many of Apple’s advertising campaigns identify and crossover well with a large and diverse number of consumers. Through innovative marketing campaigns, Apple created an iconic brand that is perceived as hip, whose consumers are technologically savvy and a loyal customer base (Jenkins, 2008). Bartholomew (2010) affirms that advertising, such as Apple’s energetic silhouette ads for the iPod or famous “1984” commercial, plays an active role in shaping our identity and pulling us in a particular direction through symbols that represent who we are or embody the definition of who we would like to become.

Perhaps Apple’s most useful tactic for building buzz is understanding its audience. In recent years, advertisers have honed in on target audiences so closely that they are able to customize messages to resonate with unique groups and sub-groups (Bartholomew, 2010).  Apple, however, does not generate buzz by attacking a segregated target market; in fact, it doesn’t have a target market. Scott (2011) says that Apple is not successful because of its products, per se; he believes that the company is a game changer because it solves problems, e.g., a need for simplicity, less viruses and feeling more hip (Scott, 2011).

Consumers are more likely to embrace products that align with their social identity. The majority of social identity development occurs consciously (Bartholomew, 2010). Many Apple ads contain neutral visuals, such as a TV spot that shows a hand demonstrating iPhone features with whimsical music in the background, iPod silhouette ads and the iMac “Chic. Not geek.” ad. By not including images of a specific target audience, the company effectively portrays images that allow audiences to relate to or gravitate to, without alienating or excluding people who do not fit that particular profile (Chalmers, 2009).

By creating a unique subculture, an organization is able to communicate and build relationships with its constituents (Heere et al., 2011). Through a highly dedicated, motivated, emotionally attached audience (Crane & Ruebottom, 2011), Apple is able to capture a word-of-mouth market that exhibits trust and camaraderie. In an age of 24/7 consumption, the need for consumers to feel connected has been amplified and, consequently, so has the application of social identity in advertising (Chalmers, 2009).

Tajfel and Turner (1979) note that under social identity theory individuals band together because of a shared identity or affiliation. As a pop culture phenomenon, Apple’s growth and market penetration carried an almost religious tone. Lindstrom (2008) cites a study that tracked MRI responses between Apple and other “brand fans” and found parallels to the responses found in religious zealots.  Similar traits include a sense of conviction, a feeling of belonging to a shared community of believers, a link to a common enemy, sensory appeal, grandeur, the worship of symbols and a sense of evangelism among believers, all of which may be broadly applied to “Apple people.”

Hogg (2006) defines a psychological group as three or more people who “construe and evaluate themselves in terms of shared attributes that distinguish them collectively from other people” (p. 28). Apple’s TV advertising campaign, which began in 1984, actively embraced the social identity of “Apple people.” Its first major TV advertisement publicized the launch of its Macintosh computer. The ad suggested the end of an Orwellian world of black-and-white authoritarian conformity with all the Technicolor possibilities to be unleashed in the Macintosh (Apple: a history in ads, 2011). At the same time, it paradoxically implied that this brave new Apple world would create a new social identification through their repudiation of conformity. The Apple social identity was more aggressively reinforced through an ad campaign that compared Apple users to PC users. In this campaign Apple playfully took on its rival Microsoft, contrasting the creative, laid-back Mac aficionado to the rigid, uptight Windows user.

Jenkins (2008) defined icons not only as ancient items found in history books but any disavowal of the status quo.  Through a targeted marketing campaign that developed an iconic brand, Apple created an informal group of consumers that many aspired to join.  Social identity theory suggests that people seek groups that will enhance their self-perception (Tajfel, 1974).  The literature about social identity theory, and Apple’s marketing strategies provide context for understanding the success of Apple’s marketing efforts in creating “Apple People.”


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