Tapping into our collective desire to belong is a powerful and sustainable psychological tool—and marketing approach—for retailers.

Sai Koppala

Sai Koppala, chief marketing officer, SheerID

Fear of missing out (FOMO) has been a cornerstone of the retailer’s playbook for years. Black Friday epitomized the “fear of missing out,” and we saw plenty of it this year. And there’s no question we’ll see more of it starting Dec. 26, when retailers offer steep discounts on merchandise they couldn’t move before Christmas.

While Black Friday and other big sales events certainly have their place in the marketing mix, FOMO is questionable as a strategy to build long-term relationships with buyers.

Tapping into our collective desire to belong is a far more powerful and sustainable psychological tool—and marketing approach. The need to feel a sense of belonging is nothing new; it’s foundational to who we are as humans (the third pillar on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). But 2020 has stripped away so many of the ways we typically connect, forcing us to find belonging in new places. Retailers have an opportunity to fulfill that need. Still, it means you must stop (or at least minimize) leading with fear and start offering the psychological reward upfront: the ability to feel connected to a group.

Here’s how three well-known brands—Rothy’s, Chipotle, and Harley Davidson—are leading with belonging to engage consumer tribes and grow customer numbers, loyalty, and revenue.

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Rothy’s courts the teacher tribe 

By all accounts, Rothy’s has been one of the fastest-growing, direct-to-consumer shoe and apparel retailers in recent years. Widely lauded for its uber comfortable, stylish, and environmentally friendly women’s shoes, Rothy’s has also been savvy in terms of how it’s cultivated a sense of belonging among its customers.

The company’s founders recognized early that their brand aligned extremely well with teachers, who spend most of their day on their feet. They need comfortable shoes but don’t want to sacrifice style. For years, Rothy’s did little in the way of discounting, concerned that doing so would dilute the brand name and hurt margins.

But in 2018, the company tried something new: offering 15% off its products for teachers. The new program brought in countless teachers who quickly became loyal brand advocates and fueled its word of mouth marketing, which Rothy’s is well known for. It also strengthened the community, as customers were eager to share the offer with fellow teachers.

The campaign was the start of Rothy’s broader strategy to embrace groups of women, including first responders, doctors, and nurses who give so much back to society. Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed; customers frequently praise the brand in blog and social media posts with comments like “Rothy’s are ‘inspired by women.’ Now that’s my kind of business.”

Matt Gehring, Rothy’s senior vice president of growth marketing, credits the company’s teacher discount program with helping Rothy’s acquire customers and increase loyalty. And it’s certainly one reason why Rothy’s is deemed by some to be “more than a shoe, it’s a sisterhood.”

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Chipotle unites customers around a common purpose during COVID

Chipotle’s brand purpose is to “cultivate a better world.” In 2020, we certainly needed more of that, and the brand delivered. The company donated 100,000 burritos to healthcare workers in April to recognize those individuals’ heroic work during the pandemic.

Then Chipotle took the campaign a step further. A few weeks later, they launched a week-long “buy one, give one offer,” called 4HEROES, that allowed customers to get in on the gratitude. When a customer purchased a burrito, Chipotle automatically donated one to a medical professional. Chipotle customers were so enthusiastic that only two hours after launching the program, Chipotle had donated 100,000 burritos to healthcare workers.

Chipotle also let crew members contribute by writing encouraging messages, thank you notes, and drawings on the delivered burrito boxes. This is community building at its finest, where everyone—including healthcare workers to the employees to customers—were connected within a bigger cause. And when you’re able to create this sense of belonging among a community, it fosters a deeper connection with the brand.

Harley-Davidson cultivates belonging with “H.O.G.”

Even amidst Harley-Davidson’s struggles in recent years, they’ve always excelled—and continue to excel—at building community.

Harley recognizes there’s a strong connection between its customers: “Harley riders are Harley riders—there’s always that commonality,” the brand says on its site. This bond between Harley owners didn’t just happen; the brand seeded it.

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In 1983, Harley formed its now-famous Harley Owners Group, a.k.a. “H.O.G.” As an employee explained years later, “we saw H.O.G as a way to get out on the road, reconnect with customers, and have some fun.” In addition to sponsoring group rides, H.O.G. puts on numerous charity drives, which provides a common cause for members to rally around. The sense of belonging that H.O.G. has instilled in its members has created a fierce loyalty to the brand, which has helped the company survive tough times.

Will 2021 be the year of belonging?

In today’s environment, consumers are full up on stress and uncertainty. And while that “Don’t miss out…” or “Only hours left…” subject line may make them click through for a quick purchase, it’s not going to foster a connection that keeps them coming back. I think it’s fair to say we’re all ready for a new year. I believe we are prepared for a new approach -one built not on fear and negativity but belonging.

SheerID is an identity marketing firm. It helps brands acquire and verify confirmed members of “consumer tribes”—such as military members, students and teachers—with gated, personalized offers.

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