Incubating Identities

Social groups help consumers build their identities. How do marketers fit in?

The essentials

  • An identity incubator is a social group, such as a book club, in which members can subtly discuss identity challenges.
  • They are characterized by four conditions: they are safe spaces; they are separate from the outside world; they have stable membership; their members share common challenges.
  • Marketers aiming to create identity incubators themselves should recognize the four key conditions and create them in such a way that allows meaningful discussions to happen. 

You can be anything you want to be!

The idea that we live in a world of boundless opportunity is hard to escape. While it can be intoxicating, for those of us sorting out our identities, endless choice can be a burden.

“Certainly in modern Westernized Society, who we become and what we do with our lives is no longer prescribed for us,” says Tandy Thomas, assistant professor of marketing at Smith School of Business. “With the luxury of being able to make that choice comes the other side of it. Making the choice is hard.”

Along with colleagues Martin Pyle of Ryerson University and Jay Handelman of Smith School of Business, Thomas discovered one way in which consumers solve this dilemma: they create “incubators.”

Incubators, says Thomas, are “carefully controlled environments with very specific kinds of conditions in which they're able to grapple with these challenges, where they're able to really take the time to think about who they are as people, how they want to be known as people, and engage in the self-development that they don't have time to do anywhere else in their day.”

Finding Yourself in a Book Club

Thomas, Pyle, and Handelman refer to these constructed social groups as identity incubators. One such group, and the basis of their study, is the book club. They conducted in-depth interviews with book club members, focusing on members’ book club experiences, book club dynamics, routines and traditions, and how book club membership relates to other life elements.

The popularity of book clubs combined with the fact that they are built around a marketplace resource made them an ideal site of study. An identity incubator, however, is not restricted to the book club. Any group that satisfies the conditions of an identity incubator, from a running group to a social group of stay-at-home dads, could operate in a similar fashion, providing the opportunity for group members to talk through the identity challenges they might be facing.

While identity incubators may present them themselves to the outside world as free-flowing, relaxed social gatherings, they are often the opposite, the researchers point out.

"Who we become and what we do with our lives is no longer prescribed for us. With the luxury of being able to make that choice comes the other side of it. Making the choice is hard”

"It would be a bit strange for [book club members] to say, ‘Bye honey! Bye kids! I'm going to go and really think about the challenges I'm facing right now in terms of how to manage my relationship with you and how to get our kids through the tumultuous teenage years,’ ” says Thomas. "Even normal, everyday struggles, are not the kinds of things that we normally expose to the outside world. These book clubs are created as protective mechanisms, so they don't have to say that."

As a result, identity incubators use what’s known as a normative gloss — they talk about their group as being fun and casual when presenting themselves to the outside world. On the inside, however, they are carefully constructed and controlled spaces.

Four Conditions of an Identity Incubator

The research identified four conditions that allow a particular social group to function as an identity incubator. First is that it must be a safe space. “When we talk about safety,” says Thomas, “it’s really about it being a trusted space where people can expose their vulnerabilities without fear of people making fun of them or judging them, or presenting them to the outside world as insecure."

Second, there needs to be a separation from the outside world, a respite from day-to-day life. Distractions, such as children running around or spouses coming and going, detract from the ability of individuals to engage in social reflection.

The third condition that the team identified was that of stability. “There needs to be some kind of longevity in terms of the membership within the group because a key element is forming trusting relationships,” says Thomas. “It’s difficult to really grapple with deep, personal issues when you don't have that set of trusted sources.”

Finally, it needs the conditions for unifying discussions. Members need to have something that serves as an impetus for discussion, while also allowing them to go into broad domains. Further, while members may strongly disagree on particular topics and values, there must be shared identity challenges that serve as a platform to unify discussions.

Implications for Marketers

Identity incubators create opportunities for marketers to tap into, but marketers should reflect on whether they are operating as a part of the problem or a part of the solution.

“They can be a part of the problem in terms of the plethora of cultural discourses that get put forward, as well as the plethora of marketplace choices that implicate a particular lifestyle or a particular normative way of being,” says Thomas. “But if marketers can find ways to get themselves inserted into this process of engaging in collective identity building, it can become very useful for the marketers and for consumers.”

Thomas points out that if marketers recognize the need for controlled spaces and how marketplace resources can help facilitate discussions, they can support consumers in these identity projects. In the example of book clubs, they can think about the kind of books that are marketed to book clubs and how these books can serve as fodder discussion around identity.

Further, if aiming to create identity incubators themselves, marketers should recognize the four key conditions and create them in such a way that allows meaningful discussions to happen.

The desire for such a space does appear to be growing, says Thomas. “While the process of engaging in self-reflection isn't necessarily new, what we're finding is that opportunities are becoming diminished, in which case the need for a carefully constructed incubator is becoming more prevalent.”

Sparrow McGowan

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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