05/15/2013 07:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Influence: How Much Would You Pay for a Better Identity?

Think of the last expensive piece of clothing you bought. Think about how you looked, how you felt wearing it, and your justification to buy it. Now I am willing to bet it wasn't that you thought it was a perfect reflection of who you are, but rather you spent the money because you liked the prospect of who it enabled you to be. You probably justified it as an "investment," but an investment in what? A good article of clothing, or in your identity?

Human identity consists of 3 main components: how we see ourselves, how we think we are currently perceived by others, and the way we ultimately want to be seen. To get people to act, the goal is to create a gap between how they believe they are seen now and how they want to be seen. This gap, usually called dissonance in psychology, is a subtle but extremely powerful mechanism for motivation. Your job is to position your offer as positively building their aspirational identity. Meaning - buy this and you will be perceived how you wish to be by your colleagues, your clients, and even your boss!

I know it sounds a bit like manipulation, because in a way it could be used for such purposes. But there is a difference between negative manipulation and positive influence, namely in the intention behind the act. As long as you have positive intent and ethics, what is wrong with you trying to help the buyer achieve an aspirational self? You'd make Maslow proud!

Still need more evidence of the power in identity alignment? Then read up on Domtar and how they've linked paper consumption and human identity to change an entire industry.


When you are willing to put the needs and the image of an industry on your shoulders it's one thing, but how about stepping into an unfriendly and historically hostile environment to do it? In the 90's as the Internet and other technology innovations drove sweeping change in the mediums people were using to work and collaborate, Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (ENGOs) were also gaining strength in their ability to put pressure on businesses for the impact they were having on the environment. Transparency found its way to the end-users of paper products and society holistically began to turn their back on paper. Just think, how many times a day do you see an email that says, "Please consider the environment before printing this email?"

Nonetheless, the paper and pulp manufacturer Domtar stepped up to the challenge and tackled the issue of designing not just a brand identity that is both environmentally conscious and beneficial for their potential customers and themselves, but went much further to develop operational practices, innovations, and partnerships that deliver on that promise as well - all to enable their paper to be one of the more sustainable products on the planet. This evolving identity is constructed for Domtar, for their industry, and for paper as it is transformed into a way of life. With a historical setting that embedded the need to be environmentally friendly into many customers' aspirational identities, Domtar has positioned itself as the Paper manufacturer of choice to close the gap between the consumer's simultaneous desire to use paper and be conscientious.

Partnering with the World Wildlife Fund and the Rainforest Alliance, Domtar ultimately released their EarthChoice® paper, making them at the time the only manufacturer in the North American market producing FSC certified copy paper with the WWF panda logo. It won them new contracts with business customers who felt heavy pressure from ENGOs and consumers alike to become more sustainable, it enabled them to renew contracts with existing clients, and elevated their positioning in the industry with buyers and competition as they became more than just a sustainable paper producer, but an expert in sustainable policy creation. They had built a new identity for themselves and enabled others to do the same, making them magnetic in the industry.

Beyond just that, though, they partnered on or conducted their own research and worked to preserve not only the identity and reputation of the paper industry, but also to articulate an identity for paper itself, establishing it as being sustainable, personal, and purposeful. Working with and learning from Two Sides, a European based forum, Domtar sought to break down traditional myths of paper within North America that had been developed and cemented in popular knowledge based on antiquated practices from decades ago. They launched an entire campaign around this sustainability identity, and then provided an additional resource to help their customers understand how their engagement with Domtar products affected their own personal sustainability-focused identities. They've even started to educate future generations, designing tools around forestry education and impact minimization for children.

It is still too early to predict the destiny for the industry, but just recently we've seen new innovation that is blurring the lines between today's bleeding edge technology and traditional mechanisms like paper. Just recently an article posted in FastCompany reviewed a new application called Drawnimal for the iPhone and iPad that "teaches youngsters the alphabet while exercising their imaginations beyond the bounds of the screen." As long as Domtar and the rest of the industry continue their efforts to lead the green revolution and break down the myths of forestry practices, there may be a place for paper and pulp products in people's everyday lives.

My ultimate point is that the ability to appeal to identity is key to influence, and Domtar's use of it to establish themselves as an early moving environmentally friendly paper company helped them to elevate above competition and drive the industry voice!

So What Can You Do?

You can appeal to the identity of prospective endorser of your offer in two main ways:
  1. Be the Model. You can literally yourself embody the aspiration. This is, in essence, what Domtar did by positioning themselves as the environmentally friendly paper company with their partnerships and Earthchoice® product. People will buy from people they want to be like.
  2. Show How They Aren't Who They Want To Be (and how you can help get them there). This refers to the ability to build the gap, or create the cognitive dissonance, that then compels the buyer to act and fix it. The goal is to make sure what you are offering solves the problem you've helped them realize they have.

Making these appeals forces you to understand the filters through which your buyers construct identity and to audit your own identity. Think about how you dress, how you present how clear you are on your offer and how different it is. Consider the quality of your materials, the look and feel of your website, and so on.

Make a list of all the touch points your buyer has with you, your offer and your brand, and then rate how powerful and effective you think those are. How could you improve them? How can you make them more about identity and aspiration? Watch the video below for more on the matter.

Influence - Unleash Cognitive Dissonance from Peter Sheahan on Vimeo.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Peter Sheahan on the topic of Making It Happen in Small Business, focused on turning those with the ideas into those with the influence. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.