Utility & Identity

There are two primary drivers for the decisions that people make: utility and identity.


Decisions driven by utility are entirely pragmatic. We all frequently make those kinds of decisions, like when we choose a dentist, for example. Most of us would start by choosing a dentist with a good reputation, who we believe to be competent. We might base our decision on reviews, a reference from a friend or family member, or years of experience, but, regardless of the metrics we use, choosing a dentist is still a pragmatic decision. The choice of dentist carries no particular prestige.

In making these kinds of decisions, what a person really wants to believe is that the brand knows what it’s going to take to achieve their objective. The decision of dentist is based on whether or not the person believes that the dentist knows what he or she is doing and that they understand what it’s going to take to achieve a positive outcome – not just in terms of dental health, but also in terms of the experience itself: cleanliness and comfort of the facilities, ease of dealing with insurance, etc.

Conversely, decisions that are driven by identity are largely based on how people feel about themselves and/or how they want to be perceived by others. Luxury products–luxury cars, luxury watches, luxury clothes–are the clearest example of this. Yes, each of these products has a utility, but to some extent, each is designed to show that the purchaser has wealth or taste or class or all of the above.

Most decisions, however, lie somewhere on a continuum between utility and identity. The person shopping at Whole Foods is making purchases that definitely have a utility, but they are also making a statement about who they are, what they believe, and how they want to live. The person deciding between an Apple’s iPhones and a Samsung Galaxy is sometimes making that decision on a utilitarian basis (e.g. cost) and sometimes making that decision as a statement of their identity.

By shifting the objective of our campaign from being internally focused (“drive more sales”) to externally focused (“encourage more people to decide to buy our product”), we’re able to clearly identify the drivers for that decision: Is the decision being made primarily out of utility or primarily out of identity? Understanding which is which allows us to think about the target audience and develop a message that is specifically tailored to be as compelling as possible for them.

In the case of utilitarian decisions, the message needs to communicate that the brand understands what it’s going to take for the person to achieve their objective. That means developing a deep understanding of what the person wants to achieve, what they need to do to achieve it, and why they want to achieve it, and then developing a message that connects the brand’s identity and position to one or more of those drivers.

In the case of decisions based on identity, the message needs to focus on communicating that the brand understands what the person is like and how they want to be perceived by others. That means developing a deep understanding of the psychographic profile of the audience – what thing they believe about themselves and about the world, how do they want to be perceived by others and why that’s meaningful to them, etc… Once we’ve achieved that, we can develop a message that connects the brand’s identity and position to one or more of those drivers.

Going back to our experience at Cultivate, the thing that was most helpful to us was when we started to understand that our clients were coming to us because of some type of unrealized potential.

At first, it appeared that the decision to engage with us was a utilitarian one—our clients wanted to achieve something, and we were means to that end. But while that was certainly true, it was not the whole truth.

When we dug in more deeply, we realized that this unfulfilled potential was always rooted in the sense that our clients weren’t being properly understood by others. And that ultimately, that was the source of their frustration – being misunderstood. Others just didn’t get it, didn’t understand the organization, and didn’t understand why it was important to engage with them.

So what we did was take our position—“mattering, not marketing” — and use it to shape a message that fit their pain point: Marketing, meet mattering.

Our clients understood what marketing is, that was not the problem. The real issue was that whatever they were doing for marketing wasn’t helping them to actually matter. Promising that we could solve that problem, that we could ensure that they actually matter (and are therefore no longer misunderstood) is what made the case for why they should choose to work with us.

That message — “Marketing, meet mattering” — allowed us to reach our target audience (prospective clients) in a way that attracted ideal clients to us, clients who felt misunderstood, clients who really wanted to matter. So not only were we creating a way to achieve our objective of encouraging more people to decide to buy our product, we were also attracting the right people, the people we were best able to serve.


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