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The Social Identity Effect: How one Millennial “Found Herself” at the MFA After Midnight

Posted by Lisa Hoffman on Wed, Nov 15, 2017

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Shortly after midnight last weekend, I was surprised when someone suggested that we head to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Despite my love of art, while interning at the museum in college, I learned that people like me were not its "typical" daily visitors. Asked to conjure up an image of those who go to the MFA—an imposing neoclassical building located in Boston’s Fenway—I pictured school groups, white-haired docents, and tourists…lots of tourists.  I did not envision urban millennials looking for a respite from the Boston bar scene. Not until I saw it for myself.

In 2014, the MFA set out to grow their audience and take advantage of a city teeming with recent college graduates. They needed to continue to appeal to their typical daytime patrons (those older tourists, families, and school groups), but with a new director in place, the MFA saw an opportunity to become a sought-after destination for Boston’s millennials. So, the museum launched #mfaNOW—a series of late-night parties, artistic celebrations, and lectures targeted at young Bostonians looking for a fun night out.

These events are an incredible success—hundreds of millennials are lining up at the door on weekend nights, sharing on social, and bringing their friends because they now see themselves as MFA museum goers. The MFA is experiencing the social identity effect validated by our research: to change the image of the brand, you need to change the image of the typical brand customer.

I experienced it myself that night, as I wandered through a crowd of hip overnight revelers, my perception of the museum and museum-goers began to change. It wasn’t because of the heart-pumping music and flashing lights—though those were cool. It changed because I was immersed in people like me—young city-dwelling professionals—people I could understand, relate to, and who I wanted to be with. It felt like at any point I could run into someone I knew in the crowd, making the night an experience I was excited to share with my friends, either later online, or at the next event!

As the results of our research show, who consumers imagine as your brand's "typical" customer really matters. In fact, consumers are 12x more likely to consider brands when they can identify with their image of its typical user. So, brands looking to influence or change their brand perception need to consider who their typical (or target) customer is and create experiences and offer services and products that appeal to that person.

See it in action:

The MFA changed the image of its stereotypical visitor when it introduced #mfaNOW. It offers millennials—people like me—the opportunity to see their peers experiencing (and enjoying) the museum in an entirely different context than a typical daytime visit—a paradigm shift for an established brand.

Learn more about how we’re helping clients leverage the critical role of identity to create truly customer-centered brands. 

Topics: brand health and positioning, Identity, AffinID