Engage Customers As Creators To Improve Brand Perception and CLV

Engaging customers as creators can help improve brand perception and customer lifetime value. By giving customers a platform to create and share content, brands can build stronger relationships with their audience and foster a sense of community.

January 16, 2019
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7 Minutes
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Appeal to customers’ creative identity is one way to increase brand value

In a competitive marketplace, it’s important to consider all strategies that might lead to a meaningful connection with your audience. One way of reaching potential customers is to appeal to their social identity: the groups and tribes they believe they belong to.

When people feel that a product aligns with their own vision of themselves and their ideals, they are primed to be loyal, enthusiastic customers. This has real-world application for companies, especially for e-commerce companies.

In this paper we’ll examine:

  • Studies that illustrate the importance of social identity in marketing

  • The Creative social identity and why it can be effective when used in marketing

  • Three types of creative social identities—the Maker, the Aficionado, and the Iconoclast—and real-world examples of how these have been successfully used in branding and marketing

The creative social identity

Social identity can be defined as the part of a person’s self-concept that stems from their perceived membership in a group. And there are many studies that show social identity has a substantial impact on consumers’ purchasing behaviors. People have multiple social identities that shift over time, even over the course of a day. For example, someone’s dominant social identity might switch from “mother” to “runner” to “baseball fan” to “environmentalist,” as context demands.

Savvy marketing can appeal to these social identities in various ways. This is a common strategy. For obvious examples: Nike and Gatorade strive to appeal to the athletic and competitive social identities of their customers.

Marketers can also build social identities around their own products. One example: Harley Davidson’s Harley Owner’s Group, where group members get invited to events and receive special offers.

Research also suggests that desired behaviors can be primed by the right framing of expectations. In the article linked previously, a study was done by the authors that showed that just placing people into a “Creative”-titled group resulted in more creative behaviors from those participants.

In a 2012 study of attitudes and beliefs about creativity, nearly two-thirds of adults indicated that being creative was valuable to society and key to economic growth. Many respondents (Americans especially) agreed that creativity “defines a person and enables them to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others.” But only one in four felt they were living up to their creative potential.

Clearly, creativity is a highly valued trait. At the same time, people struggle to find ways to express creativity in their lives. This is where the marketing connection comes in:

By aiming your product or service at your audience’s desire to be creative, it’s possible to make a strong connection to your product.

Associating your product or service with the right social identity could enhance affinity for your product, build a community around your brand, and drive customer behaviors aligned with your overall strategy.

Now let’s look at three types of creative social identities and how they’ve been used by other companies.

The Maker

Given the popularity of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture, the Maker movement, and other similar trends, it’s not surprising that some people have an increased valuation for self-assembled products. This is known in behavioral economics as “the IKEA effect.”

This is a seemingly irrational phenomenon: people are willing to pay a premium for products that they must spend time and effort assembling themselves. How is this explained?

Even amongst people that claim no intrinsic interest in DIY projects, when their labor results in a successfully completed project, be it a Build-A-Bear or a bedside table, they tend to value their creations as on par with those of experts. Researchers posit that this increased valuation results from the positive feelings of productivity, enjoyment of the assembly task itself, and in some cases the ability to create products that reflect personal taste.

In essence, the customers have become Creators, or Makers. They’ve put their own labor into something and therefore have a greater connection to it.

There are many ways to harness the power of this IKEA effect to enhance your product’s value. E-commerce marketing is particularly well-suited for this application.

Perhaps the most straightforward way for customers to imbue a product with their own labor is through customization. A Bain & Company survey of online shoppers showed that those who had customized a product engaged more with the company by:

  • Visiting its website more frequently

  • Spending more time in its online store

  • Remaining more loyal to the brand

Offering targeted customization options can shift the customer’s mindset from passive to interactive, changing the shopping experience from one of mere transaction to one of creation. Reimagining your e-commerce interface as an arena for creativity may appeal to customers who highly value creativity.

Dan Ariely, co-author of the IKEA Effect paper, emphasizes the importance of customers’ desire for this sort of interactive consumption. Where consumers might once have been content just to absorb information while reading or watching television, they now crave “constrained creativity.” Constrained creativity gives consumers the freedom to express themselves while also providing the structure by which they can measure their success— think paint-by-numbers, or a service like Blue Apron.

Indeed, Blue Apron provides a great deal of structure—they develop the recipes, portion and deliver the ingredients, and provide step-by-step instructions—while simultaneously encouraging subscribers’ creative expression, inviting them to customize their meal plan and execute the actual cookery. Their content marketing strategy, which led to 500% growth in 2015, relies on a similar combination of structure and self-expression: the team creates articles about the dish, its history, and new cooking techniques in order to engage subscribers and make them more likely to share their cooking results on social media networks.

The trend toward constrained creativity is in line with survey results indicating a sense of frustrated creative potential: if a customer feels that he lacks an outlet for his creative identity, he might place great value in products and services that allow him to express it. Brands that wish to appeal to would-be makers can use this knowledge to enhance the connection between product and customer.

Some ideas for appealing to customers in this way:

  • Offering online opportunities to customize products

  • Offering content that teaches the customer how to use your product for DIY projects

  • Offering brick-and-mortar experiences, like workshops or cooking classes

Other real-world examples:

  • Nike has a division called NikeiD, which allows users to design their own shoes.

  • Zazzle and CafePress are both companies that allow you to add your own custom artwork to a diverse array of clothing and household items.

The Aficionado

Another key driver of consumer choice is a consumer’s identification with a connoisseur social group. This form of creative consumption, which involves immersing oneself in a single product category, such as craft beer or vintage bicycles, illustrates the extent to which customers seek self-expression and community through the things they purchase. The purchasing experience itself becomes a form of self-expression, less about shopping than about going on a mission to learn and explore an interest.

One unsurprising but powerful example of the relationship between consumption and social identity comes from the music industry: a 2013 Nielsen study revealed that the 40% of consumers who identity as “fans” are responsible for 75% of total spending. These “Aficionado fans” spend across the category, not just listening to and exploring new music, but spending on artist merchandise, concerts, and online streaming services.

To appeal to the Aficionado, one approach is to present your storefront as a carefully curated collection of products, services, and stories central to your category. By connecting to the aficionado’s twin motivators, immersion and expertise, a brand can present itself as an essential resource for the aspiring connoisseur.

The Blue Apron strategy is again instructive here. Not only do they offer their customers an opportunity for structured self-expression, they also position their brand as a one-stop shop for the subscriber who wishes to become knowledgeable about food culture. The company’s foray into e-commerce, the Blue Apron Market, primes shoppers for purchase by creating and reinforcing the social identity of creative connoisseur. Product categories for product include headings like: “Uncork like a sommelier, sip with style,” “Smart Seasonings,” and “Cook Like A Pro!”

By connecting their products to connoisseurship, intelligence, and expertise, Blue Apron invites its readers into a social group of discerning “foodies” and frames its brand as an essential avenue for one type of creative expression. This association may be a factor in customers valuing the product highly.

Evidence also suggests that merely changing the price of a given product can lead the motivated customer to overvalue it and, crucially, derive more pleasure from it. A 2008 Stanford study involved subjects being told they were tasting two different wines, one that cost $5 and the other $45. In fact, both wines were the same. The study showed that the part of the brain that experiences pleasure became more active when the drinker was consuming the more expensive wine. Price can change, and perhaps heighten, experiences.

In contexts where would-be aficionados lack the actual skillset to discern the difference between products, they rely on price to indicate comparative value. This is why it can be a good strategy to present customers with products at multiple price points: the selection of a higher-value product can be a substitute for actual connoisseurship.

Other real-world examples:

  • Most car companies let you select some custom options when picking out a new car. One example is Cadillac, which has a “Build your own Cadillac” section of their site.

  • Williams-Sonoma breadmaking machine was a failure until the company released a closely-priced higher-end model, which caused people to more highly value the lower-cost machine.

The Iconoclast

In a landscape where consumers are armed with more information than ever before and are provided seemingly endless opportunities for comparison and evaluation, some argue that an appeal to connoisseurs is insufficient.

In her book Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon suggests that some of the most effective brands appeal to consumers using creative destruction. She argues that for “idea brands,” the most effective way to increase product value for consumers is through singularity, difference, polarization, and even hostility.

To return to the example of IKEA, Moon sees the store as having built its brand around a set of apparent negatives, including:

  • Inconvenient locations

  • Self-assembly

  • Limited delivery options

  • Rather low-quality products

However, IKEA embraced and enhanced its status as a “reverse brand,” presenting itself as a “retailtainment” experience. IKEA fans do not shop at the store for its quality products; they shop there for the singularity of the experience it offers—one that appeals to a customer’s sense of themselves as adventurous and willing to buck the culture of luxury, convenience, and pretension associated with other furniture stores.

Iconoclasm, or the practice of rejecting widely shared beliefs and practices, is also associated with individualism and creative vision. Brands that make an unconventional appeal, or demand their loyalists to take a stand, seek to activate this social identity. Creative destruction may seem a paradoxical form of self-expression, but it can be a powerful motivator for customers who wish to set themselves apart from the herd.

Establishing your brand as one that bucks trends, that creates a customer experience that doesn’t have wide appeal, or that polarizes its user base, can create unique opportunities for customer interest and loyalty.

Other real-world examples:

  • Apple’s “1984” commercial and similar Apple campaigns were aimed at attracting unorthodox, iconoclastic creative people who would be attracted by the independence and power allowed with the personal computer.

  • Soylent is a meal-replacement beverage popular amongst entrepreneurs and tech workers. Their branding is aimed at creative people who are so busy they don’t have time to waste on meals. Also, the product’s name is reminiscent of Soylent Green, a fictitious food product made from human beings: another indicator that they’re trying to appeal to iconoclasts who don’t mind dark humor.  

Find applications to your marketing efforts

Some of your customers will be seeking outlets for their creative social identity. Presenting your product or service as an appeal to their identities as makersaficionados, or iconoclasts can be a powerful tool for increasing the perceived value of your offerings and increasing brand loyalty.

Would your products or services be a good fit for creative social identity messaging, or perhaps for targeting other social identities? Here are some suggestions for trying to find real-world applications to your company:

  • Read this paper again, thinking about how the concepts and examples mentioned might have an application to your company’s offerings.

  • Read the articles and studies linked in this paper, which have other real-world examples.

  • Conduct a brainstorming session where you come up with new ideas for social identity marketing.

  • Reach out to experienced business strategy companies (like our company, Sellry) for consultation on ways to implement these ideas.

For any questions about this white paper or about e-commerce strategy in general, please feel free to reach out to us. Our company is Sellry; we specialize in all things e-commerce—from user experience strategy and interface design to high-end hosting optimization; from custom module development to data integration.


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Michael Bower & David Booth

Gamma Waves

We leverage our expertise in Shopify Plus to craft high-performing stores and unlock growth potential for businesses of all sizes. Here, we share actionable insights and industry trends to empower and inspire you as you navigate the e-commerce landscape.

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