How to use the psychology of ‘us vs. them’ to develop powerful creative brand strategies

In this, our first edition of the Marketing Science Cheat Sheets for brands, we explore how you can use social identity theory to create an ‘Us vs. Them’ brand strategy that will increase message cut-through, brand bonding and social conversations.

The Insight 

Consumers experience heightened levels of pleasure when a group who they actively disassociate with experience misfortune.


The Science
Supported by a large body of research around social identity theory, findings from ‘When we enjoy bad news about other groups: A social identity approach to out-group schadenfreude’ by Ouwearker et al., 2016, highlight that increased schadenfreude (experiencing pleasure at the misfortune of others) within in-groups (‘us’) occurred as a reaction to news about an out-group’s (‘them’) misfortune.

This has major implications for lifestyle brands as ‘pleasure’ is a common purchasing motive as it increases self-esteem, and supports brand loyalty. Therefore, brands who are able to understand their target audience’s various in-groups and out-groups will be able to develop strong communication strategies to increase brand bonding and schadenfreude, targeting the desired in-group audience by highlighting differences of the perceived out-group.

VU University collaborated with Leiden University and the University of Groningen in The Netherlands to test whether in-group identification increased schadenfreude reactions following an out-group misfortune. The research was published in the Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, a scientific social psychology journal dedicated to research on social psychological processes within and between groups.

The report analysed schadenfreude levels in a consumer contact by studying the reactions of BlackBerry users to negative reports about Apple’s iPhone. This study revealed that when someone has a strong in-group identity, they experienced increased schadenfreude reactions to news about an out-groups misfortune and that this increased level of schadenfreude strengthens intentions to share the news about the out-group’s misfortune with others.

Who can benefit
Adverts do not only market products to consumers. They market a lifestyle that typically promotes characteristics of their target audience. They offer suggestions to the consumer regarding ways in which they should act.

These findings will work best for lifestyle brand marketers who have a deep understanding of their target audience and who are looking to use their awareness of the out-group to increase the efficacy of their communications to the in-group.

Opportunities to Create Brand Magic
In order to utilise social identity theory to create an ‘Us vs. Them’ brand communications strategy, brands can show how using a product would differentiate in-group members from those they consider out-groups.

By highlighting the perceived failings of the out-group, the product would create increased levels of schadenfreude reactions within the in-group target audience.

An example of a brand using ‘Us vs. Them’ effectively is Seat, with the brand’s latest campaign ‘Because Them, Us’. The campaign focuses on highlighting the differences between Baby Boomers and the newest group of consumers to hit the market, Generation Z (to discover more about this new breed of consumers, please download our latest white paper: The Science of Generation Z Consumers), and paints Baby Boomers in a negative light.

The advert below explains how Generation Z are changing the way they behave compared with generations from the past. By taking on the persona ‘Us’ in the campaign, Seat embody the in-group and evoke an increased sense of self and schadenfreude by critiquing the out-group.



McDonalds also ran a successful ‘Us vs. Them’ campaign, by spoofing the ‘hipster coffee culture’ and those who buy overpriced and over complicated coffees, to target the in-group of consumers who just want to purchase a cheap, uncomplicated beverage.



The recent launch of Greggs vegan sausage roll provoked such a backlash from hardened meat lovers (the out-group) that even if the chain had done nothing to promote the new launch it would have been impossible to miss.

Dr Ben Voyer, a behavioural scientist at the London School of Economics, explains that the out-groups intense reaction is likely to be rooted in the fact that they perceive there to be a threat to their social norms and that the launch of the vegan sausage roll challenges them and indirectly makes them reflect on their own moral choices.



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StoryScience is the UK’s first scientific strategic creative agency. Moving away from the traditional opinion-led approach, StoryScience’s guiding purpose is to pioneer scientific creative and deliver brand magic that audiences want and the results clients need. We deliver creative and strategic marketing solutions underpinned by a scientific creative thinking. In short, we use science to create brand magic.


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