How brands shape our identities All of us are surrounded by brands. Designer brands. Bargain-shopper brands. Brands for seemingly every demographic slice among us. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself how brands influence you? This week, we look at how companies create a worldview around the products they sell, and then get us to make those products a part of who we are.

I Buy, Therefore I Am

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.


VEDANTAM: All of us are surrounded by brands - designer brands.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Calvin Klein's Obsession.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, the smell of it.

VEDANTAM: Bargain shopper brands.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You're going to spend $20 every month on paper towels anyway. You're throwing your money away. The mini ShamWows are for everything, for everyday use.

VEDANTAM: Brands for seemingly every demographic slice among us.


WILFORD BRIMLEY: Good morning. I'm Wilford Brimley, and I'd like to talk to you for a few minutes about diabetes. Actually, about diabetes...

VEDANTAM: Have you ever stopped to ask how brands influence you? Is it the slick advertising, the relatable characters or the story?

AMERICUS REED: Lance Armstrong would go out there, you know, with this story of, I beat cancer. And I'm going to put on my gear. I'm going to put on that yellow bracelet. I had about 50 of them.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, the psychology of brands and how we relate to them - how companies create a world view around the products they sell and then get us to make those products a part of who we are.


VEDANTAM: Americus Reed knows what it feels like to be an outsider, to be surrounded by strangers and to have to figure out how to fit in. Today, he's a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania. But when he was 17, he was the new kid - one of a handful of black students bused to a predominantly white school. He remembers his first day, getting on the bus with the other black kids from faraway neighborhoods. They were scared.

REED: But we didn't want to show any weakness. So we kind of waltzed in and walked in with confidence. And I remember the world stopping and everyone looking up and sort of saying, who are those guys?

VEDANTAM: He wanted to be accepted. So he came up with a plan - he would become a social chameleon.

REED: I sort of settled on this idea that I would try to be what was almost like a boundary spanner. So I hung out with the nerds. I hung out with the jocks. I hung out with the musicians. I hung out with all different groups. And in that sort of social chameleon, as I would sort of go from group to group, I would try to kind of fit in in a way that allowed me to have some kind of affiliation with that group.

VEDANTAM: As he spent time with these different cliques, he noticed that each had its own set of badges, its own language. And he realized that if he could speak that language, adopt those badges, he would start to blend in. So he started buying stuff. He started wearing the things the other kids wore. Often it was about shoes. With the athletes, he wore Nikes. With the musicians - Chuck Taylors. With the hip-hop kids - Adidas, but without the shoelaces. They were like costumes, only deeper.

REED: A brand can communicate something. How you wear your pants can communicate something. The particular sort of portfolio of colors that you choose to adorn yourself with can communicate something.

VEDANTAM: Americus understood that personal brands are like flags; they tell the world who you are or who you want to be. They telegraph, I'm the smart kid, I'm the rich kid, I'm the athlete. They're a form of self-expression.

REED: A brand is so much more than a tagline or a logo; it is more of a meaning system. And so a brand is kind of a promise to deliver on those values and to connect consumers who might have, in their minds, a sense of synchronicity with what they believe those values are.

VEDANTAM: We'll talk more in the second half of our conversation about the psychology of brands or the link between brands and behavior, but I want to start by looking at some examples of what you're talking about, Americus. There are people who say, look - brands don't matter, as you said. I just buy what's functional. And then there are people like these characters from the CBC TV show "Kim's Convenience."


SIMU LIU: (As Jung) What are you doing?

ANDREW PHUNG: (As Kimchee) Oh, these shoes don't play basketball.

LIU: (As Jung) They're basketball shoes. You can tell by the little man playing basketball on them.

PHUNG: (As Kimchee) No, your shoes are basketball shoes; my shoes are collector's items, and I intend to keep them that way.

LIU: (As Jung) Ah, guess it'd be bad if you got some burrito juice on them sneaks (ph), huh?

PHUNG: (As Kimchee) Get that burrito away from me.

LIU: (As Jung) Get your shoes away from my special edition burrito.

PHUNG: (As Kimchee) Dude, I'm not joking. These shoes, they're my legacy.

REED: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: So talk to me, Americus, about what's going on here. How can a pair of shoes feel like a legacy?

REED: I think that it's very interesting, Shankar, because a pair of shoes, if positioned the right way, can encapsulate a story. And that story might be, for example, a story about success or a story about overcoming the odds or a story about being able to have a kind of level of greatness that you would not be able to have but for the shoes. And so when Michael Jordan puts his shoes out there, there is the idea that - it is very clear, right? So it says, be like Mike. What does that mean? It literally means that if I wear these shoes, I will sort of encapsulate some of that mystique because I am wearing the shoes as well.

And so it's a very powerful way that a brand can tell a story that can connect with a person's or a consumer's sense of identity, that can then create this sense of legacy that the individual in the clip was referring to.

VEDANTAM: So when you think about brands in the way that you're describing them - not as tags or even as just as names or commercial, a way to sort of commercially identify a product, but really as stories, as narratives - how valuable are these stories, commercially speaking?

REED: Oh, they're tremendously valuable. And the reason that they're valuable is because they create a kind of impervious connection that's hard to break. If a consumer connects with a brand or a product in terms of an identity argument instead of an argument about how better the features are of the product compared to something else they could buy, then what is happening is that there is an insulation from the brand's competitive attacks because once a person believes that a brand is part of who they are, then asking them to go to another brand is essentially asking them to change who they are. And that is an incredibly powerful psychological gravitational pull that is really hard to overcome.

And that value in terms of customer lifetime value is a real, like, economic entity because it literally means that the person is going to be onboard and be buying for a very long time and be willing to do your own marketing basically for free because they are advocates of the brand. They are what we refer to as brand evangelists because they are now willing to go out there and protect the brand. So that value is massive in terms of creating this type of connection that can last with consumers for a very long time.

VEDANTAM: You've used a technique called social listening to study the fans of a very iconic brand, the tech company Apple. What is this technique and what do you observe among Apple fans?

REED: This technique called social listening is a combination of artificial intelligence and machine learning, where we literally go out into the Internet and we identify conversations that people are having online about brands. And what we particularly find with Apple is that there is a special, unique kind of conversation quality that happens between very fiercely loyal Apple users, and they talk about the brand in a fascinating way. There is language about the brand that almost feels as if the individual consumer is talking about religion or politics.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

REED: There is a kind of fierce, very powerful, emotional way that consumers talk about the Apple brand.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So today I'm going to be showing you all of the Apple products that I own, from old to new, everything that I own from Apple.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Something else - portrait mode. Oh, my God, I'm literally obsessed with portrait mode. Like...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Just because I mentioned that I have an Apple tattoo on my arm. And I wouldn't say I would get it again. I was 100% Apple obsessed.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Like, I would say 75% of the conversations that I had ended up talking about Apple in some way.



REED: And so Apple has been very good at creating this kind of emotional connection, such that consumers, once they're on board, Apple can basically say, hey, we would like for you to buy a new charger, which is kind of absurd. But consumers are like, sure, I'll do that.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

REED: Because they are so bought in. Whereas, you know, they could go to Android, and they could not have to ever deal with buying new chargers, et cetera, et cetera. But they're willing to do it. They're willing to stand outside in the cold, Shankar, in a line.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

REED: And wait for hours and hours and commiserate with fellow Apple loyalists to get that shiny new thing in the box. They don't have to do that. There's something that is not rational about this, and it's reflected when we look at and analyze the text of conversations that occur between these fiercely loyal Apple folks.

VEDANTAM: Now, Apple fans might say they are not deluded about their gizmos; they might argue that Apple products are objectively better than other tech products. But Americus points out that you see the same brand loyalty when two products are objectively identical.

REED: The example that I always use in my class is a very simple example of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals - the Walmart or the Walgreens brand versus Tylenol. And the fact that you can have a product that is essentially identical in terms of its active ingredients, but yet one will cost 27% more in the store. And people know that the Walgreens brand is the same thing as the Tylenol brand. And that entire market for Tylenol actually shouldn't exist if people are rational. But what it says is, there's something else above and beyond the features that has utility.

VEDANTAM: You can also see the power of brand loyalty in sports. Americus has spent a lot of time analyzing fans of the Philadelphia Eagles football team. People like Patrick Moeller, who demonstrates his commitment to the Eagles with a massive RV plastered with the team mascot and logo.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Eagle One is Patrick Moeller's $300,000 homage to his beloved Philadelphia Eagles.

PATRICK MOELLER: I'm sure there's not any Eagle fan that has been more to games than I have in the last six years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Since 2006, this eagle has nested at every single game - home and away.

REED: Wow (laughter).

VEDANTAM: Talk about this, Americus - how do people like Moeller go from being consumers of a product to effectively being ambassadors of the product?

REED: The Eagles are intricately connected with the city of Philadelphia - right? - the scrappy, gritty city of Philadelphia, the underdog Philadelphia, the blue collar Philadelphia. And for Patrick, you know, living those values and going to those games and being there when the team is awful and wanting to, like, represent your city through the sport, through the Eagles, is something that's a special kind of characteristic, especially in this city, of those fans that are Philly sports fans.

And so for Patrick, he essentially immersed himself into this identity and almost lost himself. His identity, I would say, Shankar, is completely fused with being an Eagles fan. He's literally taken this beautiful RV, and he's gone to all of the games since 2006. I mean, think about - well, you've got to have a lot of time on your hands - but think about the commitment.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

REED: Think about the loyalty to do this and to create an image and a spectacle. And the Philadelphia Eagles, if you're a brand, you're like, oh, my God, how do I clone Moellers of the world, right? How do I get all these fans to get so excited that they'll put the tattoo on their body. They'll - how do I get people to do that, to be my sort of walking billboard, my one-man, one-woman marketing department for free?

And this is beautiful because it points to the fact that if you can kind of do what the Eagles did, with respect to keeping consistent and authentic with their story, you can create these types of fans, draw them in and reinforce what they want to try to express to others. And so, you know, promoting him and sort of bring him to the forefront for the Eagles franchise and football team is a genius thing to do because you're literally just piggybacking on the fact that you've got a hardcore evangelist that is so wrapped up in your brand that he's willing to do these things to advocate on your behalf.

VEDANTAM: So if you have companies that actually want to create these brands from scratch, to build them up from the ground - you know, lots of companies now recognize, of course, that this is a powerful thing to do, so lots of companies want in on this. Here's a clip from Ellen DeGeneres about one company's efforts to create a distinctive brand.


ELLEN DEGENERES: It's a new product from Bic, the pen company. And they have a new line of pens called Bic For Her.


DEGENERES: And this is totally real. They're pens just for ladies. I know what you're thinking - it's about damn time. Where have our pens been?


DEGENERES: Can you believe this? We've been using man pens all these years. Yuck (ph).

REED: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: So what went wrong here, Americus? Why did this ad campaign fall flat compared to the stuff that Apple does?

REED: The answer is when a company is trying to hone in on a specific identity, to make a connection, a relevant connection to its brand, it has to understand that identity in a almost sociological way. And in the case of Bic For Her, I think it's quite clear that the correlation between gender and buying pens is zero.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

REED: And so if you try to tell a story that says, these are the pens for women, then the - if you don't get immediately thrown out of the building, the question will be, OK, tell me why these - why are these pens, quote, "for women"? And I think in the specific case of Bic For Her, there was not - there was nothing underneath the hood, so to speak, Shankar; it was just kind of, like, perceived as this gimmick. We call this, by the way, Shankar, in the marketing and business world, when you do not know how to market to women, we call it shrink it and pink it.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

REED: And it's like - it's a huge mistake because you didn't bother to try to understand women. That's very clear. And in fact, you went the opposite way in telling a story that would almost be perceived as insulting to women, like taking the feminist movement backwards in terms of identity because it's like, well, wait a minute - we don't need our - the pen for women. And so because you didn't understand that identity, and you didn't take it seriously, you didn't study it, you didn't sociologically unpack it and analyze it and try to understand its connection to that specific decision-making process, you make dumb mistakes like how Bic made.

VEDANTAM: I want to talk a moment about a nonbusiness, nonconsumer setting. Republicans and Democrats don't think about their political parties as brands, but it sounds like they almost relate to them in the way people relate to brands. And I'm wondering, is the animosity we see in the country between Republicans and Democrats less to do with ideology and more about brand loyalty?

REED: Political parties are indeed brands. And what we're witnessing today, right now, is the almost perverse, extreme aspect of when identity and identity loyalty and identity connection goes way off the rails. And so the notion that political parties are now becoming tribes is very, very clear and making connections to their identity, right? So if you have a proposition to say, I would like to build a wall to help with immigration, you can make a functional argument about a wall.

Or you can do what Republicans did, which is to make an identity argument to say, that wall represents keeping some group of individuals out that we don't want in this country for lots of different reasons. That's an identity argument. That's an in-group, out-group argument. That's an emotional argument. And so on.

On the other side, the other side says, this wall now represents something that is antithetical to how they see themselves. It represents oppression, discrimination. It represents all things evil. So there's no way the two can have a conversation about trying to settle on the issue on how to move forward with a policy around that wall because the wall now has become a symbol of identity. It's all about your tribe. It's all about the values that you are trying to protect, that you believe that you're trying to protect, as they are encapsulated in your particular political brand.


VEDANTAM: When we come back, what happens when your favorite brand breaks your heart?


VEDANTAM: When Americus Reed was in his early 40s, a doctor told him that his knees were in bad shape. He needed to give up basketball and running. So he started to look for another sport that would be easier on his joints.

REED: I got into cycling and found the sport and fell in love with the culture immediately. And like a lot of people, I connected with the Lance Armstrong brand. And actually, Lance Armstrong plus Nike plus Americus equaled something that was so aspirational in my mind.


PAUL SHERWEN: Armstrong is a man who rides on courage and guts. If his teammate can't...

REED: Lance brought me into the world of professional cycling in terms of actually watching it, watching the Tour de France.


PHIL LIGGETT: What a performance by Lance Armstrong this has been now as he drives up to the line.

REED: And I fell in love with Lance because his story, Shankar, his story of, I beat cancer. And I'm going to put on my gear. I'm going to put on that yellow bracelet. I had about 50 of them. And the jersey, the shoe warmups - everything. And I would go - I was - I bought the bike that he used, and I would be out there, and I would be channeling Lance Armstrong. I would think about Lance Armstrong in the mountains. And it was, for me, deeply emotional.


LIGGETT: Armstrong rocks and rolls his way here now. As he comes up to the line, his time is 15:01 (ph). He wins the time trial.

REED: And when little whisperings came out that, well, wait a minute - people are accusing Lance Armstrong of cheating, I was the first to say, you're wrong. No way. This is not happening.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Has just announced moments ago it will ban Armstrong for life and strip him of his seven Tour titles.

REED: And it was heartbreaking from the perspective of my identity because what happened was I lost a part of myself.


REED: And when it came out that Lance Armstrong is a fraud, Lance Armstrong is a charlatan, I literally remember the day that I went and got all of my Livestrong and Lance Armstrong gear, and I put it in a bag, and I set it outside. It was this - it was almost like a funeral, Shankar. It was like - it was a moment of grieving because this iconic, aspirational self turned out to be a shallow and hollow fraud. And I felt foolish. I felt like I was a fool in that relationship with his brand because I was trying to reinforce and express all of these values that turned out not to be true.

VEDANTAM: It's so interesting, isn't it? Because at one level, Lance Armstrong doing well, him beating cancer, him winning the Tour de France, really has nothing to do with you.

REED: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: And his cheating and his doping also has nothing to do with you. And yet you, you know, triumphed when he triumphed, and you grieved when he fell.

REED: That's - you're touching on something I think is the key premise of identity connections between consumers and brands, Shankar. And that's the idea that's like, once my identity fused with that, I was in sync with his highs and lows. And the idea that even though his performance, his approach had nothing to do with me, I was using that story not only on the bike in a literal sense but also kind of in my life in a figurative sense, in the sense that I would almost think about and mentally represent Lance on the bike when I was faced with a challenge in my professional life or in my personal life.

And I used that energy, that motivational impetus, that's coming from the brand, that's haloing off the brand, that I'm consuming from the brand. I'm using that for me as a source of energy that allows me to push through, to soldier on. And all of those different values that are associated with, you know, the idea that I'm putting in the work on the bike. I'm diligent. I believe. I believe in myself. I'm going to work hard, and I'm going to overcome great obstacles.

And so even though it had nothing to do with me, I was drawing upon that energy. And when I found out that the energy was actually poisoned, then it sort of resulted in this deep sense of loss for me.


VEDANTAM: You conducted a study with Amit Bhattacharjee and Jonathan Berman - how we sometimes decouple problematic aspects of a brand with the things that we admire about the brand. If Lance Armstrong had been caught stealing rather than doping, I'm wondering if you could have decoupled your admiration for Lance Armstrong the athlete with your distaste. Was the fact that the unethical behavior was in the same domain as his accomplishment that made them difficult to disentangle?

REED: In the paper that you reference there, we refer to this notion that you're talking about as moral decoupling. And so it's based on the fundamental premise that if there is an individual that you have a natural inclination to want to support, then what we know about psychology is that humans will figure out ways to rationalize the support for that individual that they want to support to uphold a belief that they want to have. And so they will try to interpret the world around them in ways that allow them to uphold those beliefs.

So for example, let's take the example of Tiger Woods, who recently came back after a long layoff of a lot of tragedy and challenge, both physically, professionally and personally. If you look at his story, what did he do? Well, he cheated on his wife. And so cheating on your wife presumably has nothing to do with your golf game. So if you desired to support Tiger Woods, you could make the mental argument in your mind that would reflect moral decoupling. You could say, well, you know, I don't really agree with this whole thing that he might have been doing in his personal life. However, I really like his golf game, so I'm going to continue to support him.

And so what's interesting about moral decoupling - if that bad thing that the celebrity or the person does is not related to the performance that you admire, then you can pull it apart in your mind, and you can almost ignore, if you will, or not even comment on the morality of the bad thing because you can simply focus on the performance and the fact that you admire what they do in that performance domain. And so it's a very interesting aspect because in the case of Lance Armstrong, it was impossible for me. And I'm going to tell you the truth - Lord knows I tried.


REED: But it was impossible for me to pull those two things apart for Lance Armstrong, and that's why all of his clothes ended up on my sidewalk (laughter), so.


VEDANTAM: Now, there are lots of people, Americus, who think that the idea of building a brand is just distasteful; it's just marketers and big companies trying to hoodwink customers, hoodwink consumers. Frank Germann, Aaron Garvey and Lisa Bolton once conducted an interesting study involving Nike putters. And when I spoke with Frank Germann, here's how he explained the study to me.


FRANK GERMANN: About half of the participants were told that they would be putting with a Nike putter, whereas the other half of participants were not told what putter brand they would be using. Importantly, all participants used the exact same putter. And, you know, interestingly, our results showed that those who thought that it was a Nike putter on average needed significantly fewer putts to sink the golf ball.

VEDANTAM: What's going on here, Americus? In some ways, this is connected to what you were telling me about wearing your Lance Armstrong gear and biking and feeling like you were doing better. But this actually suggests this isn't just a feeling; you actually might have biked better when you were wearing your Lance Armstrong gear.

REED: What it literally shows is the placebo effect, which is what they are really tapping into here, is real. You have been told about "Just Do It" for so long you believe that that brand endows a performance advantage, so much so that the psychological perceptions of that brand literally translate in your ability to actually perform, to make those putts in fewer strokes. And that, to me, is the most salient and powerful example of this notion that the power of brand is so intertwined with the perceived expectations of the behavioral activities that are built into that narrative or that story about the brand that they literally translate into advantages for the brand that really shouldn't be there, for all intents and purposes.

I wish someone would have put the metrics on me and done the controlled experiment, where I didn't know it, double-blind, where I would be on my bike with and without the Lance Armstrong clothes and see. Because I would be willing to bet - I remember days going out and riding the bike - I remember this one time where I was trying to go up this one hill, and I was struggling. I looked down, and I could see my Livestrong band on my wrist. And I looked down, and I unzipped my bike jersey, like Lance does. This is something Lance used to do when he was about to get serious.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

REED: He would unzip his jersey, and he'd take his cap and he'd flip it around. And it's like, this means that he's signaling to his competitors, I'm about to get very, very, like, hardcore into this, and I'm about to take this to a whole new level. I remember doing that, and I remember powering through this hill and getting to the top and, like, imagining in my mind those fans of Lance...


REED: ...That would be at the top of the hill cheering him on. And I almost - I'm willing to bet that my performance improved when I was wearing his gear.


VEDANTAM: You've talked in the past about how branding can be a force for good, that it can help companies that are mission-driven companies accomplish great things. But I'm wondering if you can also talk a little bit about this challenge that branding has. A lot of people see it as manipulative, see it as inauthentic. Does branding have a branding problem?

REED: (Laughter) That's fantastic. I love that question, Shankar. The answer is yes. And it's unfortunate because branding in and of itself is neither inherently good or bad. So it's kind of like - the analogy that I like to use when I'm talking about this is that, you know, branding and marketing more generally is like a hammer. And so you can take a hammer, and if you want to, you can build a house for a homeless person, right? But you can also take a hammer, and if you want to, knock an elderly person upside their head and take their wallet. There's nothing inherently bad about a hammer; it's how you use it. And why not use it as a force for change, as something powerful and positive?

For example, if you are a brand that is a sports company, isn't it great that you can actually become the motivational impetus for a consumer to want to exercise more and to make themselves healthier for themselves and their loved ones? Isn't that a good thing? I think that's a good thing.


VEDANTAM: Americus Reed is a psychologist and professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Americus, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

REED: Thank you so much, Shankar. It was a pleasure to be with you.


VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Angus Chen and Laura Kwerel. It was edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Parth Shah and Thomas Lu. Our unsung hero this week is Juana Merlo. Until recently, Juana worked at NPR's marketing department. She helped divide up our visual identity by designing the HIDDEN BRAIN logo. As a journalist, I thought a lot about stories and writing and editing but hadn't given much thought to visual design. Juana set me right on that, and she helped come up with a visual identity that travels with our show on social media and at live events. Thanks, Juana.

If you enjoy HIDDEN BRAIN and want to hear more of our work, maybe as you're powering through a tough bike ride, be sure to subscribe to this podcast. If you know someone who would like to listen to this episode, please be sure to share it with them. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.


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