All brands want loyal customers but building that community can be challenging. Forward-looking companies can achieve this marketing nirvana by incorporating Identity Loyalty principles into their social media strategies. This is the philosophy of Wharton Associate Professor Dr. Americus Reed and his Persona Partners co-founder, Samuel Botts. Here they help lay the framework, emphasizing the power of social media as a means for brands to communicate their values and for consumers to help affect a brand's narrative.

Written by
Americus Reed II Ph.D. , Samuel Botts, MBA
February 2014

Think of a brand you fervently believe in, a brand you use to express yourself and one you would recommend to friends. When consumers deeply connect with a brand’€™s values in this way, we call that "€œIdentity Loyalty."€ But reaching this marketing utopia where customers ally with your brand does not happen by accident; iconic brands maximize identity loyalty strategically.

With today'€™s advancements in digital marketing, savvy firms can best create this connection and maintain it if they systematically build Identity Loyalty principles into their strategies. In this piece, we outline how to reinforce Identity Loyalty purposefully by using social media.

A brand'€™s identity should be a clear, concise narrative that defines the brand'€™s values and ideals. It should differentiate the brand, and if the narrative is sufficiently compelling, it can attract a profitable number of devoted consumers. In brand management, reaching this point when the brand and the target consumer become one is like achieving marketing nirvana. The consumer is no longer a patron but rather an evangelist for the brand, embarking on a self-initiated mission to build the brand through promotion and defend it against attack. Highly valued companies such as Apple, Air Jordan, Nike, Harley-Davidson and Ford have accomplished this.

Forward-looking companies can achieve this as well by incorporating social media, an important but woefully underused and misunderstood tool, into their strategies for the creation, development and maintenance of Identity Loyalty in their customers. But before brand managers should even consider social media strategies, they need to create what we refer to as an Identity Loyalty framework. This begins with a positioning statement and identifies four crucial elements: the brand'€™s purpose (its "€œwhy"€), the ideals and values it represents, the psychographic and behavioral attributes of its target consumer and the value proposition offered by the brand to those who become identity loyalists.

This framework is then used to vet not only the message but also the strategic use of any digital platform. It helps firms stay true to brand values and deliver consistent marketing that reinforces those values, cementing them in the minds of consumers. Whether it'€™s through Google+, Google Hangouts, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr or a firm'€™s own social media application, consumers get the same message with laser clarity, leaving no room for confusion.

Commit to authenticity

Thanks to social media, consumers can now easily share information about themselves—€”their shopping habits, travel preferences, hobbies, religious and political views and more. When used intelligently, social platforms offer brands a creative new means to connect with consumers. Still, your brand'€™s identity and persona must be authentic for long-term Identity Loyalty to be sustainable. The identity must represent the ideals and values in which your brand is rooted. Social media then becomes a channel used to communicate those ideals and values to form authentic identity connections with consumers. For example, in its short time in business, Warby Parker has successfully used Facebook and Twitter to brand itself as a socially responsible company. Its efforts have spurred interest in and admiration of its ideals among consumers.

Communicate your brand identity

When at all possible, a brand'€™s identity should be defined by the brand itself. This is not always the case, though. Some of the world'€™s most successful companies have ended up in the crosshairs of competitors. Apple did this to Microsoft with its "€œGet a Mac"€ campaign and during the 2008 presidential election, Obama did this to his opponent when he successfully aligned McCain'€™s administration with the incumbent'€™s, which had woefully low approval ratings. (Politicians are brands too, especially at the presidential level.) Conversely, when brand managers proactively and consistently define the identity of their brand, it'€™s tougher for competitors and detractors to shine an unfavorable light on it because consumers already have a positive association. And because that association is authentic, it can be used to defend the brand.

Invite consumers to co-develop the brand identity

The relationship between a brand and its customers grows stronger when both parties contribute to its success. Brand managers can make quantum leaps in building a community of identity loyalists by letting consumers co-develop the brand'€™s identity. Here is where social media can help. In fact, when executed correctly, the commitment to authenticity becomes ingrained in the execution. Also implicit is communication of the brand ideals because these are being developed or evolved in partnership with consumers., a social media site started in 2007, has garnered quite a bit of momentum in this area. The platform encourages consumers to speak up and urge brands to change practices that they find troublesome. While some companies consider this a rather adversarial means of customer engagement, forward-thinking companies embrace it as an opportunity to collaborate with consumers and strengthen their brands.

At the core of any Identity Loyalty strategy, regardless of the social platform used for execution, is a commitment to authenticity. Social media can give brand managers a powerful means to communicate their brands'€™ values while also letting consumers help define brand narratives in an impactful way. The Identity Loyalty framework lets brand managers put Identity Loyalty principles at the forefront and maintain consistency in building deep and strong connections with their audiences.