Post Pop: Identity as Brand

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.

 

 

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You Are What You Brand

It sometimes seems lost on people, but consumers have begun to face an important problem: the increased uncertainty about various product attributes. This arises from various asymmetric information consumers have access to, regarding a specific product. Consumers tend to assess certain product attributes in a holistic manner rather than a case by case basis – bigger, faster, longer may still sell low-interest items, but it is increasingly losing its traction. Consequently, both extrinsic and intrinsic factors have to be accounted when trying to differentiate a product from its competitors. And therein lies the central distinction between products, campaigns, etc. and brands. Brands are bigger, richer, and drive us to act without always know precisely we we’re doing it. Brands can potentially play many different roles in the consumer decision process. That opens up a range of deeper questions about the role of a brand in the cosmic sense. How brands help us construct and reflect our identity is one way to think about it – and it’s a damn fine way, at that.

Often, consumers will choose a brand that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each consumer at an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, consumer choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of an individual social identity For example, a may choose to buy a pair of Doc Martens as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the buyer considers himself a post-punk soccer mom the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Each individual lifestyle reflects a person’s values, life vision, and aesthetic style. It also reflects a shared set of ideologies, collective style, and sense of belonging.

Marketers tend to use brands to differentiate a company’s products from competitors and to create a sense of superior value to customers – this is frequently done by talking about product attributes. The most important step in creating and delivering a superior value to customers is by adding meaningful brand associations that create value beyond the intrinsic characteristics of a product. One of the most important characteristics of a brand is the self-expressive function, meaning that value goes beyond the immediate benefits of your stuff and imparts a sense of psychological and social well being. Brands have the power to communicate valuable information and can be used and perceived in many different ways by consumers, people with similar beliefs, and those closest to us. In other words, brands reflect our identities and a lot of folks tend to use brands as a mean to express their identity and lifestyle. Indeed, this is becoming more prevalent as peoples seek to break down the paradox of belonging to something bigger than themselves while aspiring to the American ideal of hyper-individuality.

In addition to serving as an external signal, brands can be used to create and confirm a consumer self-concept and unique identity. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both his own and people’s perception about his desired identity. As a result, people use brands to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In particular, consumers tend to prefer brands that are convergent with their perceived ideal identity. As a result of that self-expression, a predilection for a certain brand is the result of only sociological factors because a person’s need for self-expression is the result of interactions with other members of the community. In other words, brands are used as a mean of expressing their own identity, brand predilection is the result of intrinsic factors, and brand preference is the result of extrinsic factors. What that means is that a successful brand must have a strong degree of resonance with both consumer personal identity and socio-cultural identity.

As a consequence, consumers’ needs for self-expression can be satiated not only be using certain brands but also by other available means of self-expression. This is particularly important when analyzing the correlations between brands and lifestyle because the lines between personal identity and everyday doings are becoming more blurred. Products are just things, but brands become beacons.

Why does it matter? It maters because brands can be used to create a unique social identity for each customer. Brands are more than just instruments of hedonic experiences because they have the power to harness and channel specific hedonistic desires in expressing a bigger sociological and psychological construct such as lifestyle. And this is where data and linear thinking fall flat (you just knew it was coming). Data get at the what and the why, but they don’t get at the richer aspects of the human experience, the why behind the what. Quantitative information isn’t relevant if it only gives you have the picture – the Mona Lisa can be broken down into its constituent parts but that doesn’t explain why people will spend hours in line for a glimpse at it. A John Deere cap does a great job of keeping the sun out of your eyes and that can be quantified. But those same data points can’t explain why the brand resonates with Midwest alternative kids to such a degree.

The answers lie in rethinking how we address brands and branding. By expanding the brand conversation to one of identity, longing, identity it allows us to penetrate the white noise and reach our consumers, turning them into advocates.

 

In the Age of Emotion

When historians look back on the early years of the 21stcentury they will note a paradigm shift from the closing years of the Information Age to the dawning of a new age, The Age of Emotion.  Now, there are those that would argue that in a period defined by prolonged economic ennui ROI is the only thing that really matters and pricing is the only real consideration consumers think about – the rest is fluff.  But I disagree. Why? Because we’re not talking about trends here, which are ultimately short lived, but cultural patterns which are sustained and signal a shift in worldview.levis-store-lighting-design-4.jpg

On a fundamental level, we are more in tune with our emotional needs than at any time in recent history, or at the very least we have more time to reflect on them.  We focus increasingly on satisfying our emotional needs and pop culture both reflects and creates this. It is a cycle. One needs look no further than the multi-billion dollar self-help industry as an example. Talk shows abound focusing on the emotional displays of the masses and the advice given out in front of an audience of millions.

And this growing focus on the emotional has extended into the shopping and retail experience.  Increasingly we will see a subtle, yet profound difference in the way people relate to products, services and the world around them. Retailers increasingly focus on the nature of the in-store experience, converting the space from a place to showcase goods, to a location, a destination, a stage on which we perform.  And indeed, shopping is as much about performance as it is about consumption.  Just as fulfilling emotional needs has become the domain of brand development, it is increasingly becoming a centerpiece of the retail experience, at least for retailers focused on margins rather than volume. Rationality will take a back-seat to passion as we move from the sensible to the sensory.  While ROI is the obsession today, Return on Insights and Return on Emotional Satisfaction will be the leading factors in the years to come.

For the developed world and the world’s emerging economies, time and money equate to an increased use of brands and shopping as emotional extensions of ourselves.  Status, power, love, etc. are wrapped into the subconscious motivations for choosing one location over another.  And while we are still bargain hunters, the hunt is less about price than it is about the experience of the hunt.  Again, emotion drives the process, even when we say it doesn’t. “Experience” is emotional shorthand.

Successful companies will learn to pay more attention to how their customers react emotionally and how their brands can fulfill emotional needs.  In the Emotion Age, brands will either lead the way to customer satisfaction or be left in the dust.

 

Brands, Ads, and Culture

The old advertising model advocated the creation of an external brand image to influence consumers. It talked about benefits, it talked about the company, it promised to give you sex appeal. Those times are long past. This is partly due to the sheer number of channels in which people interact, but we believe there is a deeper reason. And that deeper reason is that successful brands both reflect and transform culture. In other words, talking about what you do is no longer enough. To compete in today’s landscape, you have to convey why you exist and connect it to how people experience their world.

Today we’re seeing that certain issues which could be considered secondary to a brand are suddenly primary. People are not just choosing the best, the sexiest, or the cheapest. They’re choosing brands that have meaning. Their concept of nature, of self, of society takes center stage. And this is where brands taking on a new and intriguing role.

So, what role does brand play in this landscape? The simple answer is that brands become symbols for crafting identity. They introduce, reflect, and influence meaning. The most resonant brands are creating value not just by the products or services they represent, but by the symbolic power they impart.

We believe that to be relevant and long-lasting, a brand must operate like a member of a culture. A company must share out its core values and articulate WHY it exists. A brand must stand for something and drive people to participate in it, become part of it. People want to belong to something bigger than themselves. People need to be part of a tribe.

Healthcare and Branding

We all know the perils in marketing healthcare, whether we’re talking about pharmaceuticals, services, or devices. While there is a mythology created about the world’s best clinics and the world’s most affective treatments, the fears people harbor about healthcare tend to drive the conversation – medication side effects, the wait at the office, the horror stories of infection, etc. Healthcare has responded over the years by giving a list of positive attributes about their offerings, whether it’s in the for of drug efficacy and touting the skills of hospital’s staff. Though a necessary element to be sure, this “promise of good” also serves to create a barrier between the makers of treatments, the people in clinical settings, and the people using them. Patients are reminded that they are “foreigners” in another land, healthcare providers are reduced to a series of data points, and care givers are left on the periphery of our thinking because we, as marketers, spend such little time thinking about the nature of identity and how it can be used to enhance an experience.

The ways that health is invoked in the formation of identity and subjectivity is central to understanding how people internalize your brand. This is because identity as it is constructed in relation to the choice of finding a solution to a problem (deciding on a medication, a doctor, a pharmacy, etc.) touches on fundamental issues in social science; namely the workings of power in relation to social differentiation and senses of self and other. Heavy stuff, but the point is simple – healthcare isn’t about a commodity, it is about the people who use it and how they construct their notions of “self.”

It is the verb to identify and not the noun “identity” that opens the richest analytical perspectives. The verb makes identity a process that happens between people, not individuals and the institution. Social identity is a game of playing roles. Offering a list of attributes or services means little in this sense because the decisions about where to go and how to select a product or provider are bound up in interactions, metaphor and story telling. The lists brands and healthcare providers supply differ little from one another in the consumer’s eyes and serve only to enhance the already enormous sense of distance between the healthcare worker and the person seeking attention. Identities work and are worked.

There is often an overlap between the people seeking treatment from the brands used and the people in the medical facility, for people sharing a common problem. Between the two poles of identity politics, the collective social roles of doctor/patient and the personal, different balances are made between common diagnosis and treatment efforts and individual endeavors to rework a devalued identity.  The same can be said about the treatment(brand)/patient interaction. In other words, the lines between healthcare worker (be it doctor, nurse or physical therapist) and the company supplying a treatment are increasingly challenged in an age where identity can be so readily reconstructed according to setting.

Whereas an older generation of social scientists was concerned with the relation between health and bioidentities like race, gender and age, we must now examine the ways that diagnostic technology actually creates social difference and social groupings. Maybe this is beginning to happen even in developing countries: In Uganda, people who have been screened for HIV are encouraged to join post-test clubs. Therapeutic technology can also form the basis for bio-sociality as in the case of support groups for people who have had mastectomies, colostomies, and transplants, or who are on lifelong antiretroviral therapy.

By describing patterns of social interaction morality, and meaning, they suggest the processes through which assumptions and consciousness about health assume significance. They are richly textured because the researchers have talked to many kinds of people and considered the multiplicity of domains in social life. The differentiated picture shows not only the uneven seepage of science and medicine into social life, but also the uneven effects of different social conditions on the possibilities for the formation of health identities.

What all of this means is that the age of commoditized healthcare, like the age of commoditized shopping, is at a crossroads. Smart brand teams will rethink the way healthcare is marketed, focusing less on a list of attributes and sterile claims, and more on the shared experience of the different parties in the healthcare exchange. The doctors in these systems already treat and administer to the “self.” It’s time for the system itself to does the same.

Semiotics and the Brand

Marketers have long recognized the symbolic nature of shopping and consumption.  Products and brands are symbols for sale – products and brands are often purchased as much for their symbolic value as they are their pragmatic value.  And this is the heart of Semiotics.

Semiotics is the study of symbols , signs and sign processes.  I has been a fundamental part of anthropology since the beginnings of the discipline.  Experts in Semiotics are trained to identify and make sense of these symbol systems, uncovering how they construct and reflect the cultural contexts in which they are found. As it relates to business, Semioticians are trained to identify, interpret, and leverage these symbolic meanings for purposes of market definition, brand development, brand positioning, communication strategy, design and packaging.

Brands are symbol systems that consumers associate with verbal, visual, and performative elements of communication. They are temples to meanings that are rarely articulated in focus groups or surveys. That means that every element of a product or service, from cans of beer to amusement parks, is wrapped up in a series of symbols that consumers use to interpret what a brand means and how it relates specifically to them.  These symbolic dimensions add value to products by creating added dimensions beyond the obvious, functional needs. Brands allow consumers to create meaning for themselves, helping them construct who they symbolically want to be. This sense of self is an articulated schema  that functionally controls how self-referent information is structured and categorized.  It establishes how closely a brand reflects the self, which means they are tied to how people construct identity. The more closely the symbolic structures are tied to the sense of self, the more important they become to the individual. Brands, then, speak to those elements of existence that shape the unspoken needs we have as human beings for such concepts as love, status, ritual, power and belonging. In other words, they touch us on a deeper level that stirs our emotions and our interest.

As an example, I have done a great deal of work over the years around household provisioning.  From beer to toilet paper to cereal to soap. In all of these cases, the reasons for brand loyalty are only minimally tied to function. Yes, performance and price drive sales, but consumers are fickle and willing to turn away from brands they have no symbolic ties to when something else comes along. Not so for those brands with strong symbolic associations. Consumers who are loyal to a brand of soap because they associate it with being a good parent are more likely to stick with the brand no matter what. Brewers that talk less about calories and the affects of alcohol, focusing instead on nostalgia, connoisseurship, and status are more likely to retain their consumers.  The more the brand touches the underlying symbolic drivers behind the purchase, the more likely they are to see long-term commitment on the part of the shopper and consumer.

A brand is a sign, or more accurately a system of signs, that triggers a process of interpretation is a consumer’s mind, which means it is more than a series of functional, commoditized features and benefits. It touches on memories, associations with broad cultural ideals and individual desires. It is an act of two-way communication, not just a one-way projection by the company to the consumer. When brands speak to the rationale and meanings behind these semiotic structures, brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer. That positions the brand to become something more than a commodity, it becomes part of the consumer’s life and promotes a wider array of associations between the brand and the consumer. That produces loyalty and great market share.

Screaming in Retail

Human beings act toward the things they buy on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters. Shopping, then, can be viewed through the lens of how people create meaning during social interaction, how they present and construct the self (or “identity”), and how they define situations with others.  In other words, people need emotional connections as much as they need to know about the products you sell.  They may never admit it openly, but they do. Apple, after all, sells computers just like everyone else, but they’ve bridged the gap.

In terms of marketing materials and communication with your customers, this doesn’t mean using clichés and gimmicky messaging. It means conveying the things your products facilitate. By the time most customers actually consider making the move to finding a retailer, they have spent significant time researching specs, consumer reviews and feature lists – they don’t need more of that information from the retailer. Or, regardless of what your interests may be personally and professionally, they may not have cared enough to research a thing.  Consequently, marketing materials that convey how a brand will fit into their daily lives in a realistic way is far more likely to capture their attention than price listings and a list of technical information.

  • Incorporate references to how people might actually use the product in unexpected ways.
  • Don’t explain benefits in a vacuum, provide context and tie the product to other facets of their lives (. Subaru’s ads focusing on what a couple does on vacation rather than the car itself).
  • In addition to listing performance and feature information, list at least one direct connection between these things and an activity a consumer might be engaged in.
  • Limit the amount of text you plan to use and dedicate that text a conveying a story.
  • Talk about what the product is really for (e.g. the original iPod ads showed people dancing and enjoying life, they didn’t talk about the product directly).