The Motion Agency

The Psychology of Belonging: Why People Become Brand Fans


It is shocking that even today, too many marketers are not aware that every decision a consumer makes consists of complex emotions. One such emotion, that of belonging, is the very reason every brand needs to develop a “why statement.” To understand the complex psychology of belonging, or purpose, let’s look at a simple example of that idea in practice. Here’s one from the sports world.

Every year, starting in early September, the NFL season is kicked off. Fans from across the country pack stadiums, bars, living rooms, and city streets to watch the games. Football fans, like those from other sports, adorn themselves in the colors of their chosen team, a ritual that has its roots in medieval tradition, in which people’s sense of self and loyalty was tightly associated with their lords’ colors and symbols.

Today’s fans, while not dressing for battle, are the same—driven by an emotional connection to their team through deep-seated personal motivators. That connection (whether you call it a “desire to belong” or even “purpose”) is equal parts a reflection of self and the team they are rooting for. Such connections have even been shown to enhance someone’s meaning of life.

So, why do we care about how emotionally connected someone can get to a football team?

The Psyche of Fans

Fans, by definition, are fanatics about their team because they have somehow developed a very strong connection with these fans. Why someone is a Chicago Bears fan versus a New England Patriots fan is driven by much more than geography. It is a perceived sense of shared value or goals.

For brands, it is no different.

A why statement, less of a formal mission statement and more of a sense of purpose, roots the brand into the psyche of consumers and motivates them through emotion to take action. The why statement is a very simple concept. It’s the very driving force behind the brand’s reason for existence; it’s the explanation of not WHAT you do, but WHY you do what you do.

Ask any entrepreneur why he or she is in business and that person should say, “Because I want to change the world.” For example, Google’s why statement is paraphrased as “we want to make information universally accessible and useful.” What the company doesn’t say is “we’re a search engine.” Like Google’s, a good why statement should always be inspirational and aspirational by nature.

Author Simon Sinek, best known for the concept of the “golden circle,” gave a TED talk supporting the power of simply asking why. This idea of a why statement is precisely the motivator behind avid football fans brand consumers alike. It’s the thing that pushes people not just to buy but to believe.

Going Beyond Buying into Believing

Consumers don’t see themselves so much as buying products but rather belonging to a larger movement. Such a movement aligns with an individual’s sense of self and drives him or her to evangelize the product on behalf of the company.

“The inspired leaders and the inspired organizations, regardless of size and industry, all think and act from the inside out,” Sinek says. Begin with the why and end on the what. However, most people sell, market, and communicate from the outside in, beginning with the what and sometimes even forgetting the why. For example, consider the tagline “We make great cars through great research.” It’s not terribly inspiring. “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru”. Now that is something a consumer can get behind. Love for the reliability and safety of the car tied in with the love of the people and pets they are transporting in that car each day.

The best companies market from deep within their development process using their inner why and speaking directly to the heart of the foundation.

Steve Jobs once commented that his most hated words were branding and marketing. Former Apple vice president of WorldWide Marketing, Allison Johnson said that in the late Apple CEO’s mind “people associated brands with television advertising and commercials and artificial things. The most important thing was people’s relationship to the product; any time we said ‘brand’ it was a dirty word.”

“Marketing is when you have to sell to somebody. If you aren’t providing value, if you’re not educating them about the product, if you’re not helping them get the most out of the product, you’re selling. And you shouldn’t be in that mode.”

So, Apple isn’t in the business of selling; it’s in the business of educating, of driving, of believing, of evangelizing. When people believe in your mission, they will want to buy from you. When people want to buy, they not only want to hear from you and engage with you. They expect it, are excited about it and are anxious to share it.

Examples of Inspiring Belief in Your Brand

What brands have started to communicate this way? One great example is Guitar Center, which released a spot featuring Metallica frontman James Hetfield. The tagline is: “All We Sell is the Greatest Feeling on Earth.”

Such a bold and direct why statement is exactly why people believe in the brand. It’s not about the guitar. It’s what you do to make their lives, even the world, better. It’s putting the consumer before your product.

So, Why Does This All Matter?

Developing or repositioning a brand is one of the most complicated and impactful endeavors marketers can undertake. By taking the time to truly understand the needs of your consumers and understanding how your product or service can meet those needs, your why statement will be the driving factor for them to not only buy from you but also believe in you.