How Brands Shape Identity (And Why It Matters)
Coming out of anthropology, I have always been interested in social and cultural interaction, identity, and how we display ourselves in a public venue. This interest was driven to the forefront of my mind again recently when attending Indy Pop Con, an event dedicated to cosplay, anime, comics, and gaming. Because brands that have the most resonance and sustainability are focusing more and more on cultural groups as significant points of marketing, it becomes increasingly important to understand the nuances of who is actually speaking and being spoken to in specific contexts. Whether it’s cosplay, choosing your next car, or even buying beer, there is a central question we need to ask ourselves: how do self-presentation strategies impact who people choose to be in a given context and how does that shape marketing?
Identities Change. Anthropologist Erving Goffman used the imagery of the theater to portray the importance of social action. But unlike others who have used this metaphor, he took all elements of acting into consideration. A person’s main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. In other words, whether in the real world, the virtual world, or the juncture where the two meet, we negotiate what we let people know about ourselves and by extension, how we feel about a brand. Take gender, for instance. Marketers frequently target based in part on gender. We build campaigns with women or men in mind. However, for many people, especially younger people, the notion of a binary gender construct is becoming a thing of the past. And in virtual environments, players to switch genders fairly freely. Whether we’re talking about cosplay, gender, or anything else, what this means is that how people perceive themselves is more fluid than it has been in much of the past. Companies that don’t take these notions of identity into account in their marketing and advertising efforts do more than miss an opportunity. They risk alienation through irrelevance. Now, here’s where shit gets nerdy – yeah, I’m putting that out there. For those who aren’t that excited by the nerdy, skip the next paragraph.
Importantly, we don’t simply adopt personas as a façade; it’s much deeper than that. Identity is constructed according to context. The theoretical model used in anthropology and sociolinguistics is rooted in the idea that we construct identity – that we create or adapt both inward and outward expressions of ourselves in accordance with the moment. Think of it as a form of high-stakes theater. In a social interaction, as in a theatrical performance, there is an onstage area where actors (individuals) appear before the audience; this is where positive self-concepts and desired impressions are offered. But there is, as well, a backstage – a hidden, private area where individuals can be themselves and drop their societal roles and identities. This backstage makes it no less “real” – it simply means different notions of identity apply.
As we communicate with people, we share different parts of ourselves, adopting slightly different personas, so to speak, to reflect the context. We display and act upon sides of our personalities we want to stress with one person but conceal with another. That doesn’t make us less “authentic.” Rather, authenticity is dependent on the situation. In a nutshell, communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.
Now, back to the less geeky stuff. What this means from a marketing and advertising perspective is that people gravitate toward brands that they can adapt to a given context. People (because we’re talking about human beings, not consumers) will choose brands that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each person on an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, those choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of contextual identity. For example, a woman may choose to buy a pair of Doc Marten’s as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the she considers herself a post-punk soccer mom, the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both her own and her tribe’s perception about her desired identity. As a result, people use brands both to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In other words, the brands we chose send a message about who we are in different contexts. The brands we chose are communication tools we use to express our different personas.
Putting It into Practice. So what is a brand to do when it comes to marketing and advertising? What do we do with this idea of the fluid, contextual self? Simply put, think differently:
- Think in terms of building your share of culture. The stronger the associations people have between your brand and their cultural affinity, the more likely they are to see your brand as inseparable from their own identity. That builds more than loyalty, it builds an unbreakable link between your brand and how they see the world.
- Contextualizing the brand. This doesn’t mean abandoning a consistent brand message. Rather, it means creating a brand, campaign, or messaging platform that can adapt according to the contexts in which it will be used. Know the cultural standards of your audiences and design a plan that fits their worldviews in a given context.
- Build flexible strategies. Brand and campaign strategies should be thought of in terms of ecosystems, not pillars, where every channel plays a unique role in relation to the audiences. This allows your message to remain relevant as people shift from one contextual persona to another.
- Don’t throw out the segmentation just yet. Segmentation schemes are still useful for speaking to macro-behaviors and broader cultural patterns. That means they represent a good starting point when developing a marketing plan. But they are a starting point. Don’t let them become the end all and bee all of your strategy.
- Mediocrity breeds indifference. Be willing to create buzz, even if some of that buzz is occasionally negative – it’s better to be loved by many than to be liked by all. Learn to be comfortable with the fact that depending on the context, a brand is interpreted and used differently. This isn’t to say it’s a free for all, but it does mean that much of the conversation around the brand will occur in unexpected ways. Turn that to your advantage.
- Finally, remember that people want a reason to embrace your brand and will find a way to do it if your brand helps them reaffirm their identity.
While only a generation or two ago one’s identity was prescribed according to traditional groupings of class, religion, nationality, region, race, etc., the world has today rapidly become one enormous, fluid and unstructured mass where identity is more nebulous. Brands have become badges, controlled as much by the buyers we don’t understand as the ones we do. A brand’s strength is semiotic in nature. It provides a message for an individual as much as a product, retail setting, service, etc. A shopper isn’t just buying a hammer or a pair of shoes. He is buying an adjective, a sense of self, a membership pass into one of several “tribes” to which he belongs. Knowing that gives you significantly greater power in the marketplace.