The Individual and the Organization: the Roles of Identification and Disidentification in Consumer Behavior


C.B. Bhattacharya and Kimberly D. Elsbach (1998) ,"The Individual and the Organization: the Roles of Identification and Disidentification in Consumer Behavior", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 42-43.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 42-43


C.B. Bhattacharya, Emory University, U.S.A.

Kimberly D. Elsbach, University of California, U.S.A.

Today, more than ever before, organizational attributes are playing an increasingly important role in consumers’ purchasing, word-of-mouth and investment decisions. People not only want to empathize with the products, they want to empathize with the company as well. Two recent issues of the Marketing News ran articles on how consumers are increasingly being "swayed by good causes" and how, on the other hand, exploitative corporate behavior such as that exhibited by Nike in its overseas operations "could mean trouble even for the big swoosh." (February 3, 1997). Of late, we have seen a few articles in the marketing literature on cause-related marketing (e.g., Andreasen 1996) and socially responsible advertising (e.g., Drumwright 1996) whereby traditional organizations are joining hands with social cause organizations and/or incorporating noneconomic criteria into their marketing mix.

As consumer researchers, we need to understand the underlying processes by which individuals respond to organizational action. The notion of "organizational identification", which has been well studied in the organizational behavior literature (see, e.g., Dutton, Dukerich and Harquail 1994) seems to be an appropriate starting point for developing such an understanding. In fact, based on her investigation of socially responsible advertising, Drumwright (1996) suggests that employees and the advertising agencies of these organizations seem to identify with the organization undertaking such advertising. On the other hand, the Nike example provided above suggests that individuals also have negative attitudes or "disidentify" with organizations. Whereas identification is simply described as a "connection" that an individual enjoys with an organization, organizational disidentification is a sense of "separateness" between an individual and an organization. Both identification and disidentification are atitudes that enable individuals to maintain or enhance their sense of self.

By establishing that identification (and disidentification) also exists among actual and target customers of products, services and ideas, and by understanding their antecedents and consequences, marketers can foster or contain these attitudes to influence behavior. For example, while social marketers dealing with gay rights may want to promote disidentification with an organization such as Cracker Barrel for their discrimination against homosexuals, the organization itself may want to learn about how to contain such disidentification. Thus, marketers need an understanding of both identification and disidentification, their antecedents and their consequences. More specifically, are positive affiliations formed in the same way as negative ones? Are there asymmetries in the behavior of those who identify with an organization versus those who disidentify? Generally, how do identifiers and disidentifiers differ from one another and from those who view organizations in a neutral fashion? Our objective in this paper is to address these issues.

The empirical context of this study is the National Rifle Association (NRA): we started by conducting exploratory focus groups on the general topics of identification and disidentification and then conducted a random survey of individuals’ attitudes towards the NRA. A number of reasons point to the suitability of the NRA for an exploratory study of this type. First, in the natural course of the first focus group discussion, the NRA emerged to be the most discussed organizationCone that participants had feeling towards and to which they could relate. Second, it was also an organization towards which individuals felt both positively and negatively: that is, we had a good chance of tapping both identifiers and disidentifiers through a random survey. Finally, with a membership base of three and a half million and an annual budget of $150 million, the NRA is an established marketing organization (Davidson 1996). As readers are no doubt aware, the NRA’s influence extends far beyond these numbers. In 1993, the United Sates market consumed approximately 8.5 million pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotgunsCmany of which were no doubt used for recreational hunting and target practice. On the other hand, The National Criminal Justice Reverence Service reports that homicides committed with firearms increased to 16,189 in 1993 from 10,612 in 1987Can increase of 52%. The NRA, therefore, seems to be a good starting point for better understanding the differences between the identification and disidentification constructs as they relate to consumers.

From a theoretical perspective, this study is grounded in social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner 1985) and the notion of the extended self (Belk 1988). Based on the tenets of these theories and after conducting a series of exploratory focus groups, we conducted a random mail survey of 1000 individuals in a large south-eastern city. The response rate to this survey was 55%. Confirmatory factor analysis shows that all the scales used in the study are reliable and valid. We use discriminant analysis and logistic regression techniques to test a series of hypotheses about the roles that factors such as personal experience with the organization, individuals’ values and beliefs, the organization’s reputation in the media and perceptions of member homogeneity play in influencing individuals’ attitudes towards the focal organization, and how, in turn, such attitudes influence behaviors such as public discourse about the organization and support for/against the organization. Our key findings are that while identification is more a result of individuals’ personal experiences with the organization and/or issues surrounding the organization, in contrast, disidentification stems largely from a perceived incongruence between the individual’s and organization’s values and from the perceived media reputation of the organization. Moreover, both identifiers and disidentifiers engage in more public discourse about the organization and act for/against the organization to a greater extent than those who vie the organization neutrally.

This study contributes both to theory and practice. The results of our research suggest that not only do consumers affiliate with organizations both in positive and negative fashion, but also such affiliations are (systematically) differentially related to a set of beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. Researchers have long emphasized that identification is a way to preserve and enhance one’s self-concept. This study suggests that, along with organizational identification, disidentification may also be part of the strategy individuals use to sustain and enhance positive social identities. Thus, this study enlarges our view of the "extended self" (cf. Belk 1988), which seems to stem not only from material possessions or even memberships (cf. Bhattacharya, Rao and Glynn 1995), but also from our psychological connections with organizations.

In the context of organizations that are viewed both positively and negatively by constituents, our central finding is that these affiliations are fostered in differential fashion. Thus, while positive affiliations with organizations are nurtured through personal experience with the organization, disidentification is mostly based on a sense of value incongruence between the individual and the organization and stereotypical images of organizations developed through its media reputation. Our findings also show that, when compared to the neutral group, both identifiers and disidentifiers exhibit distinct behavior patterns such as talking about the focal organization and acting in favor or against the focal organization.

The biggest practical implication is perhaps that both identification and disidentification are "real" attitudes that lead to certain behavior patterns; so, it may be worthwhile for managers to think strategically about managing them. In situations where containing disidentification is important, it seems that proper information dissemination about the organization and its actions can help break down the stereotypes that often lead to disidentification. Thus, Nike consumers who disidentify with the company because of its overseas sweatshop operations, often do not know that those overseas employees earn much more than their colleagues who work in local organizations. Finally, given that the foundations of identification and disidentification lie in value congruence/incongruence between the organization and the individual, these attitudes may span organizational boundaries. We found in our exploratory research for instance, that identification or disidentification with the NRA is suggestive of a broader profile for the individual. In other words, individuals identify or disidentify with clusters of organizations. This suggests that identification and disidentification with social causes and issues (e.g., recycling, ecological concerns, nutrition) could conceivably be used as strategic underpinnings in developing product/service bundles and retail formats.


Andreasen, Alan R. (1996), "Profits for Nonprofits," Harvard Business Review, November- December, 47-59.

Belk, Russell W. (1988), "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (September), 139-68.

Bhattacharya, C.B., Hayagreeva Rao and Mary Ann Glynn (1995), "Understanding the Bond of Identification: An Investigation of its Correlates among Art Museum Members," Journal of Marketing, 59 (October), 46-57.

Davidson, Kirk D. (1996), Selling Sin: The Marketing of Socially Unacceptable Products, Quorum Books, Westport, CT.

Dutton, Jane M., Janet M. Dukerich and Celia V. Harquail (1994), "Organizational Images and Member Identification," Administrative Science Quarterly, 39 (34), 239-63.

Drumwright, Minnette E. (1996), "Company Advertising with a Social Dimension: The Role of Noneconomic Criteria," Journal of Marketing, 60, 4, 71-87.

Tajfel, Henri and John C. Turner (1985), "The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior," In Steven Worchel and William G. Austin (eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations, 2: 7-24, Chicago, Nelson-Hall.



C.B. Bhattacharya, Emory University, U.S.A.
Kimberly D. Elsbach, University of California, U.S.A.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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