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The Psychology of Belonging: Why People Become Brand Fans

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Too many marketers are not aware that every decision that a customer makes consists of complex emotions.

One such emotion, that of belonging, is the very reason your brand needs to develop its "why statement."

To understand the complex psychology of belonging, or purpose, let's look at a simple example of that idea in practice. Here's one from the sporting world.

Every four years, the FIFA World Cup is played. Fans from across the globe pack stadiums, pubs, living rooms, and city streets to watch matches. World Cup fans, like those from other sports, adorn themselves in the colors of their country, a ritual that has its roots in medieval tradition, in which people's sense of self and loyalty was tightly associated with their lords' colors and symbols.

Today's fans, while not dressing for battle, are the same—driven by an emotional connection to their team through deep-seated personal motivators. That connection (whether you call it a "desire to belong" or even "purpose") is equal parts a reflection of self and team. Such connections have even been shown to enhance someone's meaning of life.


So, why do we care about how emotionally connected someone can get to a soccer team?

The Psyche of Fans

Fans, by definition, are fanatics about the team or brand. Those brands have developed a very strong sense of being—the why statement. That statement, less of a formal mission statement and more of a sense of purpose, roots the brand into the psyche of fans and motivates them through emotion to take action.

The why statement is a very simple concept. It's the very driving force behind the brand's reason for existence; it's the explanation of why you do what you do.

Ask any entrepreneur why he or she is in business and that person should say, "Because I want to change the world." For example, Google's why statement is paraphrased as "we want to make information universally accessible and useful." What the company doesn't say is "we're a search engine."

Your why statement is always inspiration and aspiration by nature.

Author Simon Sinek, best known for the concept of the "golden circle," gave a TED talk video about his vision of how leaders can inspire action through simply asking why.

This idea of a why statement (the simple question of asking, "What is your purpose?") is precisely the motivator behind those avid soccer fans.

"Why" is not a matter of the end result but what your cause is.

Going Beyond Buying Into Believing

That is the same motivator that pushes people not to buy but to believe.

Soccer fans, just like fans of any brand, don't see themselves so much as buying products but rather belonging to a larger movement. Such a movement aligns with an individual's sense of self and drives him or her to evangelize the product on behalf of the company.

"The inspired leaders and the inspired organizations, regardless of size and industry, all think and act from the inside out," Sinek says.

However, most people sell, market, and communicate from the outside in. For example, consider the tagline "We make great cars through great research." It's not terribly inspiring.

The best companies market from deep within their development process using their inner why and speaking directly to the heart of the foundation.


Steve Jobs once commented that his most hated words were branding and marketing. Former Apple vice president of WorldWide Marketing, Allison Johnson said that in the late Apple CEO's mind "people associated brands with television advertising and commercials and artificial things. The most important thing was people's relationship to the product. So any time we said 'brand' it was a dirty word.

"Marketing is when you have to sell to somebody. If you aren't providing value, if you're not educating them about the product, if you're not helping them get the most out of the product, you're selling. And you shouldn't be in that mode."

So, Apple isn't in the business of selling; it's in the business of educating, of driving, of believing, of evangelizing. When people believe in your mission, they will want to buy from you. When people want to buy, they not only want to hear from you, but they expect it and are excited about it.

Examples of Inspiring Belief in Your Brand

So, what brands have started to communicate that way?

One great example is Guitar Center, which released a new video spot featuring Metallica front man James Hetfield. The tagline is: "All We Sell is the Greatest Feeling on Earth."

Such a bold and direct why statement is exactly why people believe in your brand. It's not the guitar, computer, soft drink, or software that you make. It's why you want to make their lives better, it's why you put your customer before your product.

If your brand develops, communicates, and acts upon that statement, then your customers will not only buy from you but also believe in you.


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Peter Herrnreiter is the senior director of Digital Marketing Intelligence for imagination, a Chicago-based content marketing agency.

LinkedIn: Peter Herrnreiter

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  • by Fabienne Raphael Mon Jun 23, 2014 via web

    Thank you Peter for reminding us how important it is to create emotions when our audience reads or listens what we have to share.

    You are right: when you are transparent and share your why to your audience, each member of your audience feels directly touched and this emotion can definitely lead to becoming a fan of your brand.

    One thing I've learned from once hearing a conference by Yanik Silver, is to name your audience. Give it a name, so they can identify with your brand, so they can feel as part of a huge nation, a group, a family.

  • by Mike Bragg Tue Jun 24, 2014 via web

    Fantastic article!

    I read somewhere that customers don't want to hear about what you did to create a new product or service, they want to hear what it will do for them - communicate the benefit, not your own hard work. That's how I try to conduct myself and it sounds like you share that.

    I'll certainly be back to read more!

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