If you’re anything like me, you’ve been avidly following the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and keeping a close eye on the medal count. You say things like, “We won another gold today,” and “Our team is unstoppable!” You may also find yourself watching the medal ceremonies and crying along with the athletes as your national anthem plays. Upon reflection, this might strike you as odd since you aren’t the one receiving the medal and you’re watching the action from thousands of miles away. So what’s with the tears?
Decades of social psychological research support the notion that people are generally motivated to see themselves positively. We can get positive feedback from our own actions, or from others with whom we have strong or even loose associations. This means we have a tendency to associate with groups and people that have positive social standing and distance ourselves from groups and people that are not.
Admit it, after watching the Olympics you’ve tested yourself to see just how close (or far) you are from being able to do what the Olympians do. Nike’s Unlimited You commercial taps into this idea. Maybe you timed your 100m dash or challenged some friends to a game of beach volleyball; you wouldn’t be alone. We are all part of the larger “Chinese” or “American” or “German” group, and when good things happen to Chinese, Americans or Germans, respectively, we feel good about ourselves.
This is known as “basking in reflected glory.” When we bask in other’s glories (read: your countries’ Olympians) we get a temporary boost in our own self-esteem levels and enjoy a rosy halo. We also get a self-esteem boost by capitalizing on positive events when we share them with others because we get to re-experience that positive event through storytelling. So, by identifying with our given countries, and specifically, (INSERT YOUR COUNTRY HERE) Olympians, we vicariously experience positive emotions when they succeed.
Importantly, you probably weren’t consciously aware of how salient your Chinese or American or German identity had become when you were watching the Olympics. Instead, cues like the presence of the flag and the national anthems invoked feelings associated with being Chinese or American or German non-consciously.
Companies across the world also seek to invoke a sense of group identity in their consumers that supersedes other seemingly insignificant differences (for a great example see Coke’s 2014 Super Bowl commercial). The non-conscious associations can then drive more conscious thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors such as purchasing behavior and likelihood to recommend products to friends and family.
Whether it’s clothes, drinks, or video games, companies should seek to create a group identity with their consumers and help consumers participate in moments of triumph and success. The resulting boost in self-esteem can strengthen your customer base and image. So on Sunday during the Olympic closing ceremonies, get your Kleenex ready and be prepared to bask in all that glory.