12/08/2013 06:07 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2014

Why Apple Fans Will (Almost) Always Defend Them

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

If I close my eyes I can still smell the chlorine -- and visualize the sea of shimmering silver against the background peppered with red; the strained and exaggerated movements of people operating these "Nautilus" machines. That was 28 years ago when I first fell in love with the culture of fitness. I still fancy myself as a highly tuned "athlete" who is fiercely loyal to brands that speak to my athlete identity. This is the power of "identity loyalty" -- when a brand becomes a part of who you are.

Why Why Matters. It is through this lens of identity loyalty that I reflected on Simon Sinek's 2009 TEDTalk "How great leaders inspire action." His simple thesis explains why companies and people reach great heights. One connects with others when one's persuasive argument starts with "Why." Sinek notes that this has biological roots in the brain. He's right. But it is the psychological aspects, the illusive and ever-changing thought processes of self reflection that give his idea immense power in the modern consumer market place. The traditional question of how can I convince consumers my product has superior features is wrongheaded. It focuses on "What" and reflects a transparent attempt to sell a product. However, the question of, "WHY would my customers use my brand to define themselves" is deeper. This question reflects alignment of a consumer's identity with what the brand stands for.

Why is Really Who. Sinek's logic when viewed through the lens of identity loyalty has profound importance because the "why" is really driven by the need to know "who." Who am I? Who do others perceive me as and how do I want to be perceived? What is it I want to become? What is it that I want to believe about myself? These are daily internal dialogues that help shape our identity. For centuries brands, whether they be our country, religion, political affiliation, or our favorite computer company, have helped us answer these questions. Brands have helped us breach that insulated border as we feverishly seek signals of acceptance, vindication, justification and perhaps at times even admiration. Brands have helped us to ascend that Maslowian peak of self-actualization.

Who depends on When. But as consumers we are not one static personality. We hold and simultaneously strive for many identities. I am not just an athlete. I am also a father, a husband, a professor, and a musician. Sometimes I am caring and nurturing. Other times I am competitive and aggressive. I can be analytically focused and intellectually curious one minute and absent minded and creative the next. This is powerful, because as a consumer, I am many different target markets. As a result, I will gravitate toward brands that reflect and allow for this multi-dimensional aspect of my identity. It does not have to be one brand, however no brand that reflects one part of my identity can conflict with another part because it causes internal strife which forces me to reconcile, and I frankly don't want to do that. However, brands that authentically believe what I want to believe about me can create a fiercely loyal, one-man, intrinsically motivated, self-contained marketing department. Great brands do this superbly.

There is no doubt that the watershed moment in 1985 when I was endowed with an athlete identity has had profound impact on me. -- Americus Reed II

When Me and You becomes Us vs. The World. I often observe with admirable amusement the visceral and if not deeply emotional reactions from consumers of certain brands, when their brands come under critique. It often feels "personal." The power of identity loyalty and the market consequences of what Sinek eloquently discussed -- on the surface seem irrational, yet in some strange way completely logical. When a consumer internalizes the brand as part of who they are, that consumer will defend the brand in the same psychological way they defend themselves. When Apple loyalists passionately rebuke any naysayings about Apple, it is ultimately about the battle within. Attacks feel personal because for that individual whose identity is highly aligned with the identity and values of Apple, it is personal. The struggle to maintain an unblemished self-conception and deflect or better yet dismiss feedback that may compromise one's ability to rationalize what one wants to believe about oneself is a direct consequence and benefit of identity loyalty.

There is no doubt that the watershed moment in 1985 when I was endowed with an athlete identity has had profound impact on me. I have spent much of my life trying to reinforce that part of who I am. The people I associate with. The activities I choose to do. The products I purchase. Perhaps that's why I am so drawn to brands who communicate to me in those terms. Indeed I'm fiercely loyal to these brands. Why? These brands are part of my identity because their why is my who.

The war to connect with consumers will rage on, with the winners being those forward-looking companies who recognize the power of identity loyalty as at least one critical means to create deep links with consumers, forge long-term, price insensitive relationships and bonds of self connection. To me, this is at least one of the fascinating consumer subtexts underlying Sinek's provocative TEDTalk.

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