By Emma Gow WG ‘14
Professor Americus Reed is the Marketing Department’s only “identity theorist,” focusing his research on the role consumers’ self concepts play in guiding buying decisions.
Having stalked Americus via his eponymous website, I jump right in to asking him about the site’s tagline.
“What’s a brand identity theorist? How did you become a brand identity theorist?”
He throws his head back into his characteristic hearty laugh, which if you’ve seen before, you’d know what I was talking about.
“Identity is a very powerful motivator. As the date of this interview commemorates [9/11], people are willing to fly planes into buildings because they feel their identity is threatened. No one had to convince me that it isn’t powerful driver of a lot of human behavior, but what I became particularly interested in is understanding how products and brands and certain types of consumer decisions help reinforce a person’s identity.”
We go on to discuss examples of athletes who will only use a particular brand, because brands become symbolic of that particular lifestyle and help the athlete express something about who they are. Words like Identity Loyalty and Brand Evangelist are thrown around with abandon.
“I have the personal belief that there are very few things people do in their lives that do not have an implication for how others are going to view them. So from that perspective, it’s a fundamental psychological need to understand who you are, and how others sees
you. As you develop a sense of defining who you are, who you are not, and who you want to be, that’s a fundamental question of life.”
“Wow. No one’s ever explained branding to me in that way – as a question of LIFE.”
The conversation shifts to his time spent completing his PhD. He wanted to study self-concept and identity despite objections, because he knew he had to pursue something he was passionate about if he was going to have to sustain it for years.
“This is also what I tell a lot of my students, which is, you really have to pursue your passion, whatever that is. If it’s Wall Street that’s awesome. But if your passion is marketing or movies or sports entertainment then look to carve out that identity.”
“As an MBA student, part of the struggle is staying true to what you want to do. It’s tough not to be buffeted and swayed by everyone else.”
“But I think the fortitude to be able to do that pays huge dividends. I can’t tell you how many of your colleagues have come back later and said ‘you know, I did this finance thing or this consulting thing for 5 years, I have a lot of money, but I’m completely unsatisfied and unfulfilled and unhappy.’ To me that’s a tragedy. Because the pressure here is so much so that the norm is a certain identity, and if you’re not following that identity, you may feel like you’re not fitting in. Does that make sense?”
He’s always periodically checking in with me to see if I’m following. Yes, of course that makes sense. I’m living it right now.
“But don’t you think there is a conflict between what the Wharton brand identity gives you and what you want as your own identity?”
“Your point is actually very interesting because it’s a branding question. I would encourage you to re-frame the question to say that ‘listen, I realize that I’m coming here and by definition I’m going to have strong training in financial issues, but I’m gonna take that and use it in a way that allows me to pursue something that I’m super passionate about.’ Leverage the Wharton brand in a way that does not force you to pigeonhole yourself into one particular narrowly defined identity. Do that and get better life satisfaction faster.”
He looks out the window and thoughtfully turns back to the conversation with, “But your point is a very good point. I think you’ll just KNOW. There’s something powerful about the heart. Does that make sense? To me, it’s the heart, it’s the gut.”
We go into the details of how a former student came back to him, unhappy with his job, wanted to pursue his passion in fitness and start a gym. Through Americus’ counsel and coaching, they eventually launched Persona Partners, a brand consulting company originating in the health space.
“Knowing what you know about marketing and branding, what’s it like when you go grocery shopping?”
Again, his characteristic laugh, head thrown back.
“My wife and I no longer grocery shop, we order it all through Peapod because of my most recent identity changes, becoming a “daddy” and of course, my latest new project.” He points at a picture of his baby daughter Zora. “But it’s funny that you mention that. I study this stuff, and I’m still susceptible. Because a lot of it is implicit, it’s tapping into what’s hard-wired into our brains.”
I prod him for examples.
“There’s a drink called FRS, which I was a huge fan of and I used to drink religiously as part of my workout routine and it happened to be sponsored by Lance Armstrong who is one of the sports heroes I identified with. So when all the news came out that the guy’s a sham, I had to stop drinking it. But I know this, I STUDY it, I’m a professor, but at the same time it’s hard for me to separate it all out – that’s just marketing. This exact same thing happened to me, too, when the whole thing with Tiger happened. I took a lot of my Tiger clothes and put them away, because I feel like if I put this on, I’m saying to myself and others that maybe I’m not trustworthy or reliable or loyal.”
“So what brands ARE you following, wearing, eating, or drinking?”
He points to a bottle of Neuro Drinks on his table. “The idea is that there are drinks for different functions, for example, if you need to sleep, drink this. If you need energy without the crash, drink this. I’ve been a big fan of Nike for a long time, less so of Under Armour, only because it’s starting to get a lot more mass. I love Oakley. Now I’m finding myself attracted to niche brands that only people that are into a particular sport would know about – for example, Nalini, a cycling brand. NO ONE has this; you gotta be hardcore to even know about it. And of course, my beloved Wharton brand! I’m always thinking about where we should take our brand and how should we leverage it. I don’t know if you saw this clip on Suits?”
Ohhhh yes, who at Wharton hasn’t?!
“It reinforces the idea that we’re the bankers. But how about let’s add the social impact component, the marketing component. Many people don’t know that we have teh most published and greatest marketing department in the world, right here at The Whaton School. That’s what we’ve tried to do with Knowledge for Action – real world learning. We’re always going to be strong in finance, so you never have to question a Wharton student’s ability to tell you about the numbers, but they’re also going to have these other creative aspects, people skills, and ability to build good will. It’s the marriage of right brain and left brain: we’re rigorous like scientists, but we’re also intuitive, and creative like poets. A strange dichotomy that is unique. We aren’t afraid of derivatives, analytics and metrics, yet we have softer skills in various domains of interest.”
The professor’s main message, so naturally slipped into the end of our conversation that I almost didn’t notice, was this: “Everything comes back to identity. Everything. Everything is about the ability to create engagement by expressing who you are.” True for the brands he consults, for the students he teaches, for how he lives his life.
“I’m now going to close with a series of rapid-fire questions; I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Inside the Actor’s Studio?”
“I have! That guy scares me though.”
1. What is your favorite word? Identity
2. What is your least favorite word? Anger
3. What makes you happy? Creating memories with friends and family4. What makes you unhappy? People who hurt other people because they don’t understand who they are
5. What sound do you love? A cello in a concert hall
6. What sound do you hate? Fingernails on a blackboard
7. What is your favorite curse word? It’s a Spanish word:
!ay puta! It’s a pretty bad word.
8. What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? A musical career
9. What profession would you not like to do? Banking. But no offense to the sutis, gotta love ’em!
10. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? Hey, nice job down there. You made a difference.