We live in the friction-free era. Social media channels have created an arena of endless free expression around our own identity. Anyone with a smart-phone or a modest camera can, potentially, attract the attention of millions. Whether the object of attention is a sub-culture of voguing, unboxing technology products or obsessive compulsive vehicle detailing – anyone can project their identity across the world. Communities of affinity can form around the most banal of subjects – some groups are small while others can rival the viewer numbers of a television network – but without the inhibitions of cost or corporate hierarchy.
Personal identity issues have been undergoing a ‘big bang’ but it seems as though brands have been experiencing a kind of entropy – a seismic shift towards the centre. Many brands project the same or similar messages about themselves into the market. How they communicate through advertising and design reflects tropes and clichés – often beautifully crafted (thanks to the availability of graphic design and video production technology and vast numbers of both self-taught and educated designers – who learned from an internet echo chamber where certain styles and approaches have been up-voted to become norms). Think of how many ads show people transitioning through life stages but continue to be served by a brand that recognises their needs at different stages of life.
Identity is a crucial aspect of marketing. Like so many other marketing elements it is rooted in an inherent human truth. We want to recognise and be recognised, to fit in and stand apart. It’s fundamental.
In the current era Identity has been feted as one of the significant social trends.
In politics the issue of partisan identity has become a serious and counterproductive problem, aptly illustrated by the United States’ government being polarised and divided along party lines, like trench warfare - undermining the plural truth of the wider society.
Identity also informs the issue of diversity. People are clamouring to be reasonably represented and their voices heard, regardless of – or sometimes because of, their gender, ethnicity, age, ability, sexual orientation and other perspectives and traits.
Identity is one of the most important issues in today’s marketing canon.
If you look at the craft beer section of your supermarket you are going to see an astonishing line up of beautifully designed bottles and cans, each projecting a brand story that reflects two things.
First, you can’t try before you buy – there is an element of risk – if you like the graphics you might like the beer.
Second, the category is populated by hip people who want to be seen as more hip, or knowing the arcane truth about brewing and enjoying artisanal, crafted products better than anybody else – and that leads to a small set of norms. Initially they will be established by leaders, but then others will follow. What was initially like a sexual display becomes camouflage.
Identity is like that: the London punk scene began with a small cadre of young people – centred around the World’s End shop of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. By the end of the 80’s punk and its spin-offs, the new wave and new romantic movements were the staple diet of mainstream culture – Meanwhile the innovators had moved on to explore other ideas. Entropy is as inevitable in culture as it is in physics.
It’s important to distinguish between uniformity and conformity. Of course the craft beer brands are not uniformly alike - but they conform to the tropes of the category. The subtle variations that are understood like tribal scarification or Russian prison tattoos might be understood by the deep insiders or the cognoscenti but, to most people, they look the same. The phenomenon also applies to the actual taste differences between the brews themselves. Insiders often have a set of semantic codes they use as evidence of their connoisseurship. Being able to articulate with words the nuances of flavours is sometimes the main distinction between the expert and a person who simply knows what they like – though I am an ignorant peasant - in a blind taste test, I once scored a table top of Chardonnay wines exactly the same as a renowned oenophile. As he pointed out later – it simply meant we had a similar preference for buttery, rich flavours versus sharper flavours – which is why I don’t like Sauvignon Blanc (or cat’s pee, as I call it).
The Chaos Scenario.
The rise of a kind of web 3.0, where automation, machine learning and the application of data attempt to force not only interaction but also transaction has produced a kind of glorious advertising mess. Remarketing allows brands to follow people around shouting the same message that had previously been ignored (for good reason)…as though the machine knows nothing about human behaviour (which it doesn’t). Persistent irritation is rarely a positive motivation and has never been a successful advertising strategy.
Meanwhile television advertising attempts to mimic YouTube videos (just as music videos were the go-to for ad creatives in the 80’s – scenarios sponsored by brands).
Being overly transactional produces a constant search for novelty. It emphasis executional technique over consistency. The case can be made for relentlessly trying new things. Testing and refining makes sense as part of a process of discovery…hypothesis and experimentation are valid; but jack-rabbiting between cute executions simply creates confusion and, if it is one-off, builds no memory structure for the brand and it prospects and customers.
The identity of the brand must remain as the solid foundation that every expression is built upon. At the very least people have to recognise who is talking to them. Imagine returning home from work to your family having decided it would be cool to speak only Swedish (bear in mind your kids only speak English) because you have decided that everything cool comes from Scandinavia – this may be true – but the obvious consequence will be alienation and bewilderment…in marketing as in life.
Be The One & Only
Some years ago I developed a brand theory that relates to all of the above. Put simply: the purpose of branded communications is to eliminate ambiguity. Regardless of the task at hand – persuading, informing, reminding, guiding, convincing – the person receiving the brand’s message not only has to recognise and be able to identify and distinguish the brand from inevitable rivals – but it should do so in a way where the brand is represented utterly as its own self- in every dimension. As the distinguished cultural icon Gerry Garcia famously said – ‘Don’t be the best at what you do… be the only one that does it.’
Gerry operated in the distant past, as the front-man for the trippy hippy band The Grateful Dead, but his thoughts transcend his era and seem even more important today, where demands on the attention of most people have become more intense than at any other time in history.
When movies first appeared in a commercial form, people would line up to view sub-60 second black and white films of banal subjects like Arrival of a Train at a Station by the Lumiere brothers. They were wowed. People fainted. Today the summer release of fabulously executed blockbuster multimillion dollar CG epics are routine and yet they struggle to compete for audiences. Attracting and holding attention – or mitigating against the lack of attention - is our greatest challenge in marketing communications today.
In a time of media glut brands must be immediately recognisable. Complex messages in media will fail to gain recognition
Brands need not only to be themselves but also reflect the concerns of sufficient numbers of people to become profitably and sustainably purchased. Today and in the near future.
Reflection is a key word there. The identity of the brand must mirror the self-perceptions of a sufficiently large group. This means that we have to beware of the obscurantism of advertising planning and over-commitment to data (without qualifying sample size* or having clear hypothesis to test).
There are broad human truths that persist, regardless of the product or category. In the 90’s advertising account planning became more widely embraced. At its best it contextualised marketing research in human terms. At its worst it became an arcane, blurred pseudoscience which often offered a strange post rationalisation for weird, post-modern executions that lacked a strong central proposition real people could clearly understand. It’s not the consumer’s job to figure out what we are talking about – or who it is speaking to them. They just don’t have the time or motivation. If you are not clear - there are other brands people will happily fill the need.
Can you identify with that?
*In New Zealand we have to be careful not to automatically accept ideas based theories from markets where the population size is substantial – the ‘truism’ where there are niches there are riches doesn’t hold true in a market where the total to population size might equate to a viable niche in, say, North America, India or China. It’s always worth remembering that data can also present false impressions – for example the average human has one breast and one testicle.