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.




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.


Capturing Culture

Capturing attention of a consumer is one thing. Maintaining it is quite another. And making it connect in such a way that your brand becomes meaningful in the shared human experience, perhaps the hardest part, is another still. There’s nothing new in the challenge, but as we are increasingly bombarded with marketing and advertising in every possible channel, it’s getting harder. We can easily be ignored, overlooked, or simply dismissed. Ads are competing with blogs, memes, selfies, games, cat videos, gossip, and news. Entertainment value and sharability are now the dominant forms of currency in our lives. Content has become a constant layer of engagement with the world. So how does a brand stay relevant? It almost feels overwhelming. To compete in this increasingly fluid landscape, where every interaction with the world has the potential to become a messaging platform, brands need to focus less on traditional measures like awareness and share of voice and more on connecting with the culture of the audiences they are trying to reach. Brands must compete for share of culture.

Competing for share of culture is about shared experiences where everyone can see themselves in the stories, content, and events of the day. It is about creating meaning in a broad spectrum of interactions. Why? Because at the most fundamental and unchanging levels of our being, people seek to create culture and community around the things they care about most. Whether we’re talking about broad national cultures (e.g. New Englanders), subcultures (e.g. Punks), or cultures of practice (e.g. engineers), belonging to a culture means having a shared a set of values, shared customs and history, a common language, and common worldview. They share stories, practices, and even brands. And that shared experience means that a brand has far greater relevance if it can become a fixed part of that cultural structure. The question for a brand, is how does it go about it?

The future of marketing lies in the intersection of cultural knowledge, data, technology, and content. Insight springs from being able to craft a story that is transformative – it must react to changes in the environment, but it must also drive change through creating conversations that shape more than individual targets. Those conversations must change (or have the potential to change) worlds. To gain share of culture, brands (and agencies that support them) need to develop expertise in generating real insight. Any and every approach to a marketing problem will need to integrating cultural understanding, data, technology, and content into their platforms and campaigns. Gatorade is one example of how this comes together. They have developed an entire marketing ecosystem around the idea being a Sports Fuel Company. They use data to better understand both social and athletic trends allows them to organize their users into different audience groups and adapt the conversation at a moment’s notice. The tools on the website allow users to tailor their nutritional needs with their workout and improve their performance. And, perhaps most importantly, their brand represents more than food and drink – it represents the aspirations and needs of athletes who see themselves as a special group with a shared understanding of the world. It speaks to their dreams as well as the practical realities of daily training.

In the end, brands that focus on owning cultural moments in people’s lives, and develop the expertise to speak to them at the right place, in the right way, at the right time, will do more than capture consumer attention. They will capture something more valuable than share of voice. They will capture share of culture and become fixtures in peoples’ lives.


St. Patrick’s Day Approaches, es hora de divertirse

Soon, another year will have passed away and the first unofficial rite of spring will be upon us.  I speak of St. Patrick’s Day. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade has a pull as strong as gravity for the residents and spectators in any city.  Kansas City.  It has the usual high school marching bands and Knights of Columbus elders with swords and plumed hats (chapeaux might express the headgear better). Folks with green hair toss beads from decorated golf carts. Green coffee leads to green beer which eventually leads to Technicolor vomit and acts of less than dignified passions.

In the U.S., St. Patrick’s Day has become a symbol of many things; the joy of excess being a primary one. But what does St. Patrick’s Day mean in in different places? In Boston it harkens back to an idealized sense of Irish identity, but what does it mean in Dublin?  Or Boise? Or Kinshasa?  In LA or Omaha, it’s easy to find proof that everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. More than any other ethnic holiday in the United States, St. Patrick’s Day has crossover appeal, at least for now. It’s so mainstream, in fact, that its original meaning (as a rite of Roman Catholic, Irish-American solidarity) has been eclipsed by a broader message. St. Patrick’s Day is reinvented with every generation, being adapted to meet the needs of a wide range of populations.

In the US, St. Patrick’s Day has become a sort of all-purpose celebration of American diversity. Irish-Americans are a success story, and St. Patrick’s Day is a story of American possibility and upward social mobility. When you have Mexican kids in Brooklyn celebrating it, they are celebrating the possibilities of America and ethnic advancement. When you have Spanish-language advertising incorporating the shamrock, it is a form of bricolage that has little to do with the Saints. When you have kids of Spanish, Cuban, Greek, German, Scottish, French and Irish ancestry, as with my own, dawning the green and announcing their Irish affiliation, it is not a matter of ethnic identity so much as it is a wonderfully boisterous day to let down their hair after a bleak and dreary winter. What’s really being celebrated in the US is America, not Ireland. It took generations for the Irish to really become assimilated, and it will take generations for other groups.

Outside the US, similar thoughts no doubt apply. Even in the land of the holiday’s origin, where the demographic structure and national identity are in rapid transition, the holiday has taken on a new meaning. It is a celebration of overcoming adversity and the beauty of life.

St. Patrick’s Day is known as a “thick” holiday, meaning it is rich with cultural meaning and symbolism. An ethnic festival can easily change into something that’s not quite so easily identified with an ethnic group. Understanding the fluid nature of culture and the ability people have to adapt symbols to meet their changing needs is key to understanding the motivations behind behavior.

How authentic is it all?  Is there any authenticity in “authenticity”?  And does it even matter? From an anthropological perspective, authenticity once was tied to a cultural construct and typically represented an idealized version of the past. Even if that past was relatively brief in the grand scheme of history, even if it was tied to a single individual around with an idealized perception had been built, it was still part of a symbolic system that pointed to key elements of character and meaning. Authenticity placed the contemporary group, in this case the parade goer, into a symbolic lineage with the past, giving it legitimacy and defining a structure for what is and is not “real.”  In other words, “authenticity” is a kind of invented tradition and a series of symbolic markers that people believe represent how things should be.  But this doesn’t mean St. Patrick’s Day is somehow false.  It is simply transformed to take on new meaning and new relevance.

While there are those that will dismiss St. Patrick’s Day with a cynical comment about the lack of Irishness or the excess of consumption, there is something beautiful about it.  Going beyond Irish heritage, it welcomes into the spectacle a host of inner-city students, immigrants, etc.  It becomes less a symbol about nationality/ethnicity and more a symbol of community engagement and a precursor to that other expression of the awakening of spring, Easter.  There is a great deal of beauty in the shared experience of the immigrant nation and the celebration of emergence from poverty.

St. Patrick’s has lost much of its religious flavor (as has Easter), but it has gained a unifying quality. As Nietzsche said, “God is dead.”  God isn’t really dead, but his traditional form is being secularized and is evolving with cultural/civilizational forms out there. Sure the forms exist, but with a few exceptions these forms have as much relevancy to the spirit that once animated them as the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade has to the spirit St. Patrick. They may be, as Jack Whelan said, “dead forms animated by the undead energies of nostalgia, jingoism, and other passions.”



What Subcultures and Fashion Teach Businesses

Fashion and style are things that we often dismiss as frivolous, but in truth they are foundational to the structure of a society and tell us volumes about the underlying culture, or subculture, of a population.  We often forget that appearances are outward expressions of deeper internal truths.  This is particularly true of subcultures.  Interestingly, subcultures and their expressions of identity through fashion are often dismissed by marketers and management precisely because they represent something counter to the mainstream.  Our own cultural baggage gets in the way of identifying important elements of physical identity.  Even so, businesses often seek to capitalize on the subversive allure of subcultures in search of what is cool or trendy, which remains valuable in the selling of any product.   This process of cultural appropriation may result in the death or evolution of the subculture, as its members adopt new styles that appear alien to mainstream society. This process provides a constant stream of styles which may be commercially adopted.  It also means that there is a constant struggle between the creative-minded and those disinclined to see potential value in the inventiveness of subcultural fashion patterns.

But recent history is proof that past youth subcultures have influenced mainstream fashion, and youth subcultures are on the forefront of fashion change and experimentation.  Middle-class moms wearing Doc Marten’s boots, CMOs with elaborate tattoos.  High-end designer clothing and the outfits of celebrities will most certainly be remembered and preserved for the future (hence the “red carpet” moments at the Oscars), but these are not fully accurate representations of current society and youth culture, nor are they a full representation of the sources of fashion invention.  The collection and preservation of the actual garments and accessories belonging to youth subcultures, as opposed to the later knock-offs of these styles provide a substantial and meaningful documentation of society and its effect on mass fashion. They signal what is to be in the greater cultural dialog, not what is.

A subculture is a group of people with a culture (whether distinct or hidden) which differentiates them from the larger culture to which they belong.  A subculture is a subversion to normalcy. Subculture has been described as a word which means liberty of appearance, liberty of creativeness, liberty and ease of the chosen model for getting pleasure. The subculture is a sacred action, in which the only arbiter of values and belief, taste and preferences is the person or the tight, often small, group. The person with the autonomy of his own choice.  Between subculture and fashion there is a connection and it is very important. The subculture, the clothes that the young wear in the street, the ideas of the rock bands, the clothes in the clubs, etc., influence and transform fashion design. In turn, those influences reshape culture at large.  Store layouts are reinvented and behavior at home and elsewhere subtly shifts the definition of what is acceptable, meaningful and of value. And that kind of steeping in certain spirit from a given youth circle is important for the creative searches and findings of fashion designers. This spirit is especially precious with its freshness and roughness. The fashion invention is born and the progress of style is completed.

There is value in getting to know subcultures intimately.  They represent an  unlimited reservoir for ideas and motives in the art of designers of all stripes, be it in art, advertising or fashion.  The subculture attracts and charms with its spontaneity and incredible imagination. It may also repel, but in the process it leaves an impression. Censorship and standard do not exist for it, because the marks and symbols that it uses are born from the energy of the rebellion and disagreement with the already existing rules and restrictions. For fashion and indeed the retail spaces in which fashion is displayed, subcultures represent the need to experiment and to find personal meaning in a postmodern world that elevates the concept of the individual to an almost religious duty.

So where does this lead us?  Simply, it is a reminder that when we watch trends or fixate on the statistics that convey existing mainstream patterns of behavior, we miss the next opportunity.  That’s fine if your goal is to find a better way to push more of the existing products you have, but it tells you absolutely nothing about what COULD be.  It turns insights into simple regurgitations rather than identifying anything that will lead to breakthrough design, be it in fashion, retail or anything else. Similar to other misunderstood things, subcultural patterns are held anathema.  And yet they are the source of inspiration. It is not right to aggrandize unreserved the youth subcultures and to accredit to them with virtues, but it is equally not right to deny, repress or ignore them.  A company that does so is self-limiting and will be taken by surprise when the market changes.