The Identity Question - The Most Important Thinking in Sales

From Scot MacTaggart, creator and host of The Pitchwerks Podcast, The Werkshop helps readers to scrutinize and practice a different skill every month, focusing on pitching and presenting to new customers or investors.

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If you listen to Pitchwerks regularly, you’ve heard me say that something I call “The Identity Question” is the most important concept in sales. It basically says that people think more about their own identity than the brand or product when making a purchase. For most of us, it’s a way to avoid getting ruled out of the buyer’s consideration. Others do better with it.

Teams like Apple Computer and Mercedes-Benz have professionally built end-to-end systems to get the most out of the buyer’s target identity, and as a result they often become the only option the client will consider. I think about this a lot, but don’t often get into the fine details on the show though, because I’m trying to focus on the guest’s perspective rather than my own.

The Identity Question starts with the idea that we all have an ideal self. Early adopter, trusted expert, minimalist, whatever your thing is, it’s who you enjoy being the most, or the person that you want to be. That’s the first part.

The second part is the question itself, and that ideal self is going to be a strong influence on how you answer it. In one form or another, before almost any decision, you will wonder - before choosing a product, watching a movie, donating to a candidate, talking to a stranger, or joining a dance at a wedding, you will take a second and think…

...is this what my ideal self would do?

Depending on the audience I have and the feedback that I get, I have written, framed and explained this question in many different ways. If this particular wording isn’t comfortable for you, or isn’t quite clear, maybe one of the others will suit you better, such as:

  • “Is this something that a person like me would do?”

  • “What does this decision say about me?”

  • “How do I feel about being the person that does this?”

Multiple variations, same incredibly useful tool. If they see your product, service, political candidate, movie, or whatever as being consistent with their ideal self, then you’ve cleared the hardest hurdle. If not, then you’ve got a very low percentage chance at getting anything useful done at all.

Great marketers know this. Look to smartphones and fashion for proof. Does a person like you use a Blackberry in 2019? Probably not. You probably have an identity position when it comes to Apple versus Samsung though. Do you wear Wrangler jeans, or have a belief of why they are different than Levi’s or Lucky Brand?

Blackberry still has some loyal customers that feel strongly about their distinctive features. On the other hand, the Wrangler Jeans Company might offer the perfect cut for a high school kid in your neighborhood, and that kid will never, ever find out because that kid’s too invested in seeming rich and cool. (Quick side note: When it comes to clothing, there’s nothing more valuable than a perfect fit.)

So what does this all mean? I think of it as kind of a fun game, where the objective is to figure out what qualities that the largest quantities of buyers attribute to their present or future selves, and then make sure that they can see the same qualities reflected in the story I am telling.

Please keep in mind what I said at the top though - for most of us, The Identity Question helps you to understand how to avoid getting ruled out. Very infrequently, a brand is successful in using it to become the only option considered.

This Month’s Challenge: Start thinking about your target buyer in these kinds of terms. Take the largest segment of your addressable market, and think about who the decision makers are. What adjectives do they apply to themselves? What would they stay away from? How does your product story or brand story help them to prove that they are this person - this ideal self - that they want to be? How can you improve that story so that it brings them closer to the target?

Want to talk about this? Have questions? Tell us on Twitter! Tag me at @pitchwerks and use the hashtag #SNPwerkshop so others can follow along!