Identity precedes everything in brand strategy.
Before your company, before your product, before your market, there is your user’s identity, and that identity dictates the world your brand gets to play in.
Everything we do as consumers is an expression of who we are.
From conversion to consumption to churn, every action we take is aligned with how we see ourselves, and identity is the underlying code that makes those behaviours happen the way they do.
Identity triggers behaviour.
If you can understand that code, you can radically change your relationship with the user — so radically, that your users pivot even their most deeply rooted behaviours and beliefs.
We’re constantly feeding our minds with meaning and narrative, bringing our identities to life every day through the stories we tell ourselves.
Whether it be zoning out during the ride to work or the way we treat the barista at the coffee shop, we not only live in these moments, but also observe ourselves through a third (extremely subjective) eye as they happen
— “Beautiful woman is lost in her thoughts on the the way to the office”…”Man with kind eyes tips the barista a little extra because he has character.”
It’s the nature of identity to experience something in the moment while also contextualising that experience for meaning.
That eye is a perpetual reinforcement of who we are and where we belong, and the single most personal story we tell ourselves.
The story is also the world in which your brand will live.
While most brands only consider the observable world of their ideal users, truly smart brands look for the hidden inner world that operates within each user.
That’s the world where decisions get made. If you can understand that world, you can make the right decisions happen.
In order to know how to speak to your user, you have to first understand how they speak to themselves when no one else is listening.
The best brands among us already demonstrate this:
- TED created a new world of ideas, but also let us see ourselves as casual experts without the usual mental and emotional labour involved. They realised that while we may have wanted to learn, what we really wanted was to just know something.
- Whole Food’s started a food movement, but also constantly evolved their inventory and rearranged their stores, creating the thrill of discovery so that we could tell ourselves we were not only healthy people, but health tastemakers on the bleeding edge.
- Netflix’s daring and intelligent content changed television, and also allowed us to see ourselves no longer as just viewers, but as active participants. We once told ourselves we were an audience, but now believe we are active agents.
These brands changed not only the outer world, but our private inner worlds as well... and that is the most powerful way to build a brand.
They understood that identity was the starting point.
The quickest way to get there for your own brand is to understand how our identities form in the first place.
This is a list of the most important identity constructs we’ve learned. They are the rules and truths that guide any internal monologue in any audience.
There is an inner world hiding in plain sight.
Use these guidelines to get there.
1. Income doesn’t really mean anything.
If people want it, they’ll find the money for it.
Most of the people in your local EE store shouldn’t be spending £1k on an iPhone. But they do. And most of them upgrade every year, too.
Don’t waste your time with two-dimensional demographic info that only tells you what people should do, instead of what people want to do.
We spend our money on the things we believe in.
Look at psychographics instead.
Understand what permissions people give themselves in order to do or buy something outside of their usual scope… or better yet, what permissions they’re still waiting for.
Remember that Apple gave us the permission to make electronics a signal of our self-worth, before we even knew we wanted it.
Oftentimes gender, age and socio-economic background don’t matter, either. The people who can afford your product are the people who can afford to have their minds changed.
Ask yourself who those people are, and what drives their purchase behaviours more than their budgets.
That’s where you’ll find your answer.
2. What people really want is to learn about themselves.
Most brand positioning takes one of three forms:
- This is what our product does.
- This is what you can do with our product.
- This is who you can become with our brand.
The third positioning, This is who you can become with our brand, is the most powerful position to come from, and the only direction that the consumer mindset is headed for in the foreseeable future.
Ikea knows that even affordable modular furniture can reveal something on an emotional level.
This year, they’ve announced a slew of daring collaborations with not only breakthrough fashion icons like Virgil Abloh and OFF WHITE, but also musicians like Solange and her arts and culture hub Saint Heron, perfume creator Ben Gorham, and childhood throwback Lego.
The message is clear — you can become a creator with IKEA. This isn’t about furnishing your apartment anymore.
It’s a realization that changes your relationship with both the company and yourself.
There is perhaps nothing more valuable for your user than the experience of realizing who they are.
Every action your brand takes is a reflection of your positioning. It’s easy to go with This is what our product does, or This is what you can do with our product, but that’s leaving money on the table.
Push yourself to create a different a story that weaves both you and the customer into the future. A story that will deeply change both of you.
3. Values rarely change. Beliefs change easily.
Short of a life changing event, consumer values typically don’t budge.
The beliefs that sit on top of those values, however, do change easily.
Cannabis startup MedMen knew that changing peoples’ anti-drug values was a dead end, but changing the belief that sat on top of that value — the belief that drug users are bad people — could in fact be changed.
MedMen’s new narrative gave people room to understand that you can be a drug user and still be a good person.
And logic only dictates that if you want to use marijuana, you can still maintain your values and stay a good person, too.
The ads above literally crossed out the old belief and inserted the new one. Now your drug use didn’t define you. Your humanity did.
Changing our values is extremely uncomfortable. Changing our beliefs is a lot easier.
Brands that keep your values intact but change your subsequent beliefs allow you, the user, to grow without the pain of changing your worldview.
Make sure you separate beliefs from values and know where to insert your narrative.
Yes, you can change values if that’s really where you want to go, but sometimes people only have room to shift their belief systems.
5. Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t always correlate with wealth.
Somewhere along the line, we started believing wealth pushes people up Maslow’s hierarchy.
But oftentimes it doesn’t.
Not everyone gets to the top of the pyramid. Not even the wealthiest among us.
Source: Big Think
While it may be largely true that increased prosperity moves people up the bottom three tiers, we’ve found in our work that the top two tiers actually correlate a lot less with wealth than you’d expect.
Many consumers in the top 5% have the disposable income to donate to charity, give back to their communities, volunteer, partake in immersive travel, become more spiritual, expand their world views or philosophies (all behaviors that reflect self-actualization and self-transcendence), but get stuck somewhere between the love/ belonging and esteem stages.
Wealth doesn’t move you up the pyramid. Confidence does.
It takes more than money to move up Maslow’s hierarchy.
Mindset, not money, defines where we are.
If you’re surprised that your wealthy neighbours hold xenophobic views, or your prosperous family members won’t give change to homeless people, it’s likely because their money moved up the pyramid faster then their hearts could.
Similarly, just because your customer is affluent doesn’t mean your corporate social responsibility program will resonate or your environmentally friendly practices will keep them from churning.
Make sure you understand where your customer is before you make any assumptions.
If you can help them move up a little faster with your brand, that’s even better.
To be continued.....