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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Art, Science, and Blurred Lines

Research is not as “objective” as many of its practitioners, and buyers, would like to believe. Certainly this holds true in terms of market research. We construct complex statistical models, fret over the dreaded “leading question” and cloak ourselves in the guise of science, but in doing so we sometimes miss the bigger point – we’re here to discover, innovate and develop real insights. Good research doesn’t exist to validate our worth by positioning ourselves as simple, detached observers of the rational. It isn’t about regurgitating facts (which are not the same things as insights). We often seem to forget that while we strive toward objectivity, the whole enterprise is subject to larger political, economic, and social forces. Paradigms dominate thought and research practices until new paradigms develop. The result is that many opportunities are lost because they simply don’t fit the accepted way of doing things. Hence our propensity for embracing rational, seemingly objective science and dismissing art. But art often includes elements of commentary, irony and critique missing from “serious” research. What if we step back and start to think about how they two can and should influence each other?

First, the arts can fill a critical role as an independent zone of research, of experimentation and of learning. Rather than focusing on standardization and outcomes, the focus is in the act of creating. This is a significantly different way of thinking because the focus is on the interdependence of symbols and looking for new modes of expression that may well run counter to the hypothesis from which we work. It is holistic and concerned less with constructing norms than it is with viewing norms from an angle, so to speak.

This isn’t to suggest throwing out using systematic investigative processes to uncover behavior and meaning. It is suggesting that we broaden the definition of how we “know” what we know and expand the options both the researcher and the participant have in the field. Using painting or sculpting as a means of articulating an idea, practice or belief engages the participant with the concept in question rather than the researcher or question itself. The interaction is, at the beginning, focused on the interaction between person, concept and medium. As the artwork unfolds, the researcher is in a position to develop new questions, comment on the ideas expressed and explore concepts that 1) might not normally be discussed or 2) might be too sensitive for the participant to normally address honestly. By using art as a means of expression and exploration, both researcher and participant become part of a shared exchange rather than a negotiated one.

But art is more than free expression. It isn’t as simple as putting clay or paint brush in hand. Several traditions of the arts uniquely equip participants and it’s helpful to construct assignments with these in mind:

  • Whimsy: Focusing on radical symbolism, the participant-artist is encouraged to incorporate criteria such as celebration, fantasy and wonder into mundane objects and services.
  • The Outcast Approach: Artistic traditions of iconoclasm allow the participant-artist to take up lines of inquiry and expression that are often devalued by others.
  • The Exalted: The positivist approach and valuing of social commentary means the participant-artist is likely to integrate cultural issues in their work that reflect broader concepts.
  • Steam Punk Wonder: Casting the participant-artist as outside utopian/dystopian discussion around technology and change, means the participant-artist can bring the scientific and technological possibilities to a wider expression unbound by “logical” constraints.

 

There are of course other approaches to how the stage is set, but the point is simple. Artistic valuing of creativity and innovation means new perspectives can possibilities can be revealed in very evocative ways. That leads to new ways of thinking about what we sell and how we sell it.

 

Second, because the results are something that requires depth and explanation of a symbolic nature, the artwork produced, it by definition communicates research findings in provocative ways that are often far more effective than a the traditional bar graph or interview snippet. The people we conduct research with approach messages, products and problems in ways quite different than those of the people who make and sell things. Artwork serves as a powerful tool in helping consumers and users articulate meaning in a way that businesses can’t ignore.

Of course there are the skeptics who often wonder what contribution artists, both internally and as research subjects, can make to serious research (funny the tables are rarely turned with the artist asking what an MBA or a research guru can contribute to the creative experience). It’s all too subjective, after all, and can’t be readily defined in metrics. But the truth is, art can augment research and its outcomes in numerous ways. First, and perhaps the most obvious, artwork produced by participants can define new questions while conducting the research. This leads to uncovering unorthodox interpretations of products and messages, articulating wide opportunities and perspectives. Valuable lines of inquiry die from lack of support because they are not within favor of particular scientific disciplines. New technologies with fascinating potential are abandoned because they are judged not marketable. I am worried that the invisible hand of the marketplace might not be so wise as many would like to believe. The judgments that make short term sense for stockholders do not make sense for the culture.

I am not suggesting that an objectivist approach be thrown out and that art and science should attempt to become on and the same. However, I am suggesting that the two need not be so separated from each other when we’re looking for insights and information. Research is, or can be, a creative act. The more we separate the two, the less likely we are to make any unique contributions to a business. Just as science strives toward objectivity, art cultivates metaphor, subjectivity and deviation from the rules that govern the day to day existence. The research and insights produced from this way of learning look decidedly different from the deliverables produced by traditional researchers, but therein lies the advantage. The findings provoke and move audiences.

 

Objectifying Objectivity

“Science is a social phenomenon…It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time is not a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it. Facts are not pure information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories are not inexorable deductions from facts; most rely on imagination, which is cultural.” Gould, 1981

Business people often like to think of themselves as scientists of sorts – their science is practical and applied, but first and foremost it is grounded in objectivity and hypothesis testing, the hallmarks of scientific reasoning. Scientists seek concepts and principles, not subjective perspectives. They seek laws, truths and testable, verifiable data.  And we as a society, be the business person or the designer, simply accept objectivity as a fact of life. Thus, we cling to a myth of objectivity: that direct, objective knowledge of the world is obtainable, that our preconceived notions or expectations do not bias this knowledge, and that this knowledge is based on objective weighing of all relevant data on the balance of critical scientific evaluation. And here is where I will no doubt irritate some and flat out piss off others – objectivity is a myth. So from the outset, let’s be clear. I am not implying that objectivity is a fallacy in and of itself. That would be absolutist. Rather, like all myths, objectivity is an ideal for which we strive. The search for objectivity is an intrinsically worthwhile quest, but it should not get in the way of an insight, which frequently happens. If you can’t quantify it, an insight loses its worth. And that is a terrible, terrible thing.

In most business situations the fact of the matter is that we choose which events, numbers, etc. we want to place value on and those we want to dismiss. This is occasionally conscious, but more often is the product of our worldview, what we hope to personally gain from the data we employ (e.g. a promotion), or simply how tired we are when we sit in on our 300th interview at the end of a long day.  Our beliefs and expectations exert a profound control on perceptions. In other words, we see what we expect to see, and we remember what we want to remember. If we believe that moms are the primary decision makers when it comes to buying groceries, we overlook the roles of other family members in the process, roles that may in fact be more important. So, while people misrepresent themselves in most traditional research (itself another topic of discussion for a later date), we in fact twist reality one turn further. Out of all the occurrences going on in the environment, we select those that have some significance for us from our own egocentric position.

What all this means is that the first problem with obtaining objectivity is that perception strengthens opinions, and perception is biased in favor of expectations. The second is, that our involvement by definition alters the situation. In 1927, Werner Heisenberg, in examining the implications of quantum mechanics, developed the principle of indeterminacy, more commonly known as “the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.”  He showed that indeterminacy is unavoidable, because the process of observation invariably changes the observed object. Whether we run a focus group or ask someone to fill out 20 questions in a survey, we are altering “normal” behavior and therefore the how an idea, a product or a brand would play out in real life. What this means is that probability has replaced determinism, and that scientific certainty is an illusion.

So what are we to do? How can we reconcile the profound success of the scientific method with the conclusion that the perception and process make objectivity an unobtainable ideal? Well, we accept a few things and move on. Science depends less on complete objectivity than most of us imagine. Business even less so, especially as it pertains to things like advertising and branding.  Admitting that allows us to use a biased balance to weigh and evaluate data, experiences and good old-fashioned gut reactions. If we’re aware of the limitations by which we assess and measure our area of study, be it cereal shopping habits or car purchase decisions, we can use those biases effectively. To improve the accuracy of a balance, we must know its sources of error.

Pitfalls of subjectivity abound. Some can be avoided entirely; some can only be reduced. The trick is to know when and how to use them to get at a real insight. Some of the more common pitfalls are:

  • Ignoring relevant variables: We tend to ignore those variables that we consider irrelevant, even if others have suggested that these variables are significant. We ignore variables if we know of no way to remove them, because considering them forces us to admit that the experiment has ambiguities. If two variables may be responsible for an effect, we concentrate on the dominant one and ignore the other. The point is, we cherry pick and doing so leads to flaws.
  • Confirmation bias: During the time spent doing our initial research (that stuff we used to call a Lit Review), we may preferentially seek and find evidence that confirms our beliefs or preferred hypothesis. Thus, we select the experiment most likely to support our beliefs. This insidiously frequent pitfall allows us to maintain the illusion of objectivity (for us as well as for others) by carrying out a rigorous experiment, while nevertheless obtaining a result that is comfortably consistent with expectations and desires.
  • Biased sampling: Subjective sampling that unconsciously favors the desired outcome is easily avoided by randomization. Too often, we fail to consider the relevance of this problem during research design, leading to suspect insights.
  • Missing important background characteristics: Research can be affected by a bias of human senses, which are more sensitive to detecting change than to noticing constant detail. In the midst of collecting data, however you chose to think of it, it is easy to miss subtle changes in context. That, unfortunately, often leads to overlooking interrelationships between people, events, etc. In other words, it means you overlook important information because you can’t tear yourself away from what you perceive to be important.
  • Conformation bias in data interpretation: Data interpretation is subjective, and it can be dominated by prior belief. We should separate the interpretation of new data from the comparison of these data to prior results.

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with embracing our subjective side, our interpretative side, our artistic side. This doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting the search for objectivity (although sometimes that is in fact the best course of action), but it does mean we should recognize that when a client starts freaking out about our research results and, more importantly, our insights, we should be prepared and address it head on rather than trying to defend ourselves as “objective observers”. After all, I’ll be the first to say that I love mythology. That said, I don’t believe life sprang from body of Ymir (look it up) but I do believe we can learn quite a bit from the story about our humanity. Similarly, if we embrace the realities of a subjective, or at least causal world, we produce better thinking, better insights and better results.