Identity signalling

Guiseppe Peppe_The music sounds better with you

Pic: Guiseppe Peppe

I interviewed a lot of athletes in 2017. Personal trainers, coaches, instructors, and all types of participant from elite to amateur.

The role specialist kit plays in their worlds interested me.

Many of the sports involved extreme conditions: the right kit keeps you alive. I’d assumed function would be everything. Yet listening to these people, I was surprised about the subtle role brands play. Whilst function is vital (performance, fit and comfort) over time it became clear there are other things going on. Your kit signals who you are.

An obvious one: signalling to clients (what psychologists would call the outgroup). Instructors need to project a professional image to clients and brands play a role. When you’re mountainside all you have is your body, voice and reputation – and your clothing. It plays a differentiating role. Experts don’t want to wear the same gear as the “punters” or “weekend warriors. An item from a specialist brand – with identical technical capabilities to an equivalent item from another brand with a mass-market following – makes you stand apart from the people you are instructing.

Signalling to peers (what psychologists would call the ingroup). Each sport has subtle codes. A nice quote: “if you turned up with jacket with certain logos on it there would be raised eyebrows and comments… I have nothing against (BRAND X), I just wouldn’t choose to wear it to work… Status hierarchies need to be maintained as in any profession. Being given free gear by the right brands to test and review gives you the next level of bragging rights. You can always drop the “I didn’t pay for any of this” or “…these boots? They were never brought to market” line if you’re keen to impress.

Signalling to yourself. The gear tells you something about yourself, reinforcing your identity. It’s not always conscious. One example: it took me about 45 minutes to get the guided tour of the kit room in one participant’s house. There was one item at the back he didn’t mention, so I had to ask. The baggy black Outer Layer – shiny at the elbows, saggy and not quite so waterproof 10 years on – was the first specialist item he’d bought after working in an outdoor retailer for the summer. He’d coveted it, saved up for it and bought it with his staff discount. From a brand which the older more experienced peers were wearing, it was his entry to ‘the club.’ He hadn’t worn it for years: whilst its intended purpose was practical its actual purpose was emotional. A symbol, or memento.

I have two reflections.

Firstly, all of this speaks to general human experience. A glacier or mountain may mean life or death – but is still a social environment in which people seek difference and demonstrate status. Look closely at any other specialist area – fashion, music, IT, whatever – and similar things will be going on because we’re social creatures who construct our identities in relation to the context we find ourselves in. As psychologist Tony Crabbe says “We compete for status in almost every domain of our lives.” 

Secondly, our identities are more malleable than we care to admit. Brands are reference points. We internalise them. They reinforce our sense of who we are.

We perform ourselves to ourselves.

About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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