The other day I read an article titled “Why Your Customer’s Social Identities Matter.” It inspired me to think about the ways in which music speaks to people and how it can effectively reinforce one’s social identity.
To recap; we all have an image of ourselves, an idea of who we are, and how we want the world to perceive us. This self-concept is the result of our social identity, which is defined by our membership, as individuals, to different social groups.
This concept is broken down into two components. Firstly, we think of ourselves as members of certain groups but not others and, at any given time, our actions and surroundings impact our thoughts and behaviors. When at a sporting event, for example, we will think of ourselves as members of a group who care about a certain sport or individual team and it is unlikely that we are identifying with a group of people at an art gallery or in a place of religious worship.
Secondly, there’s a set of behaviors that are recognizably appropriate to a given group. In this case, we can assume everyone at a sporting event is a sports fan and that one’s identity is enhanced by participating with cheers, boos, and other common interactions. To break this down further, people will wear different team colors, logos or jerseys to demonstrate their allegiance to a certain side, distinguishing their social identity and enhancing their status within the group.
Also, very importantly, one has a multitude of social identities that constantly shift based on environment. For example, an Irish, Catholic, baseball fanatic, who’s favorite team is the New York Mets, doesn’t necessarily feel particularly Irish or Catholic while watching a game at Citi Field. The reason – they are immersed in a different social group and, during this time, are thinking like a Mets fan. Alternatively, if they were in church, they’re aligned with Catholic thinking and behavior.
When consumers identify with a social group that has a well-defined, positive image, they tend to select products that most clearly broadcast their membership in it. To this end, the article examines the buying decisions of hybrid car owners and dissects why Toyota’s Prius outsold Honda’s Hybrid line of Civics, Accords, and other models. The answer was found in the design. Unlike Honda, who’s differentiating feature was a faintly, legible, logo on the car’s trunks that read “Hybrid”, Toyota designed a new line of car, the Prius. The Prius is only available as a Hybrid so, it offers its drivers a signifier to demonstrate their environmental beliefs, which positively strengthens this group’s identity and influences buying decisions. Here, it’s cool to see how a car is able to offer value that transcends its base, transporting use.
So, What Does This Have To Do With Music?
Simply, music is inherently, valuable, cultural material and unlike regular products, recordings authentically appeal to listeners’ emotions. Also, music expresses an individual’s personality and taste, offering an outlet for one to heighten their experiences in varying social contexts. Since people already engage with music in this way, it offers opportunity to genuinely appeal to them without altering behaviors.
Furthermore, artists and genres have their own style, and attitudes that form social groups in society at large. It’s these varying styles and attitudes that not only differentiate one artist or genre from another, but also attract like-minded individuals (fans) to identify with them. So, like in the first, aforementioned example, whereby an individual at a sporting event thinks as part of a group that cares about a particular sport, when listening to a certain artist or genre, either alone, with friends, at a club, in a store, mall or concert, one is relating to that form of music over all others and is identifying with the style and attitudes its offering.
When thinking about the differing styles and attitudes in music movements there are clear dividing lines. For example, the art direction and ethos behind early punk rock differs greatly from the pop-punk movement it influenced in the late 90s. Similarly, early Chicago house music and the American sub-genres that spawned from it in the late seventies/early-mid eighties are vastly different from the European sounds a few years later and are a far cry, in every way possible, from today’s, modern “EDM”.
When comparing these, capital G, genres, Punk and House music, we see their difference clearly and better understand their appeal to target groups. Early punk is rebellious, aggressive, and underground, where as early house is buoyant, edgy and built for dancing. They both posses a subversive spirit, as DIY upstarts, but, in the end, they are not the same and one will be preferred over the other on an individual, case by case basis.
Similar to the second component of social identity, one’s enjoyment of music is based on the social context of what is appropriate in a given group. For example, a club-going kid who is also into early 70s folk-rock music, won’t be putting on a reissue of Music from Big Pink, when with a group of friends who are about to head out to The Hoxton to see Gorgon City, which leads into my next point.
Like the multitude of an individual’s social identities, that shift based on environment, many people listen to a variety of different genres, and will rarely, if ever, only listen to just one artist (the debates surrounding the death of the album are not foundationless). Moreover, the landscape of popular music is fragmented now, more than ever, and we’re living in a cluttered space where niche, music markets have a big impact. As an example, in his address last year at MIDEM, Martin Mills, founder of Beggar’s Group (arguably the largest and most influential, independent label group in the Western World), likened the independent, music business to a “cottage industry”, whereby small local creators can have a vast global reach. As a listener, these fragmented niches are fantastic. To me it only means that we’re living in the richest and most diverse musical age – arguably the best time to be alive and listening to music. With this knowledge, however, comes an overwhelming amount of information, but for those interested in defining their sonic dimension, there is no better time. In this pursuit, brands have the opportunity to strengthen their appeal to customers by aligning with the forms of music that reflect their personalities.
To this point, one can think of music like fashion. In most wardrobes, it’s safe to assume that there are varying styles of clothing. We wear different clothes when at work than we do when we’re out with friends, or when we’re at home, at a special event, at the gym or doing yard work. We use clothing to adapt to different situations and project our understanding of social context. In essence, clothing is a strong signifier that shows others, who are a part of our extended social group that we belong to that group. It’s no different than the Prius example, and like clothes and products, music is a strong signifier for people to use, as an extension of their personality, to express themselves in different social settings.
So, if people use music in this way, why can’t brands? Every strong brand has a core identity, visual direction and set of values that differentiates it from the next, and for each brand identity there is a wealth of complimentary music. For example, what does Deep-House music say about a brand who decides that genre reflects their personality? Well, they’re probably forward-thinking, a little edgy, urban, hip and appreciative of the underground – maybe they’re an H&M or American Apparel. What does Hip Hop say? How do listeners of these genres differ from those who listen to folk-rock or country? What does country music say about the listener of that genre?
This line of questioning can lead us into a rabbit hole as we dissect the many genres, and sub-genres in the musical landscape. Ultimately, however, the questions that beg answering – what is your brand’s personality? And what type of music will heighten that personality to create an environment that reinforces your customers’ social identies?