The Problem of Identity

“Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self, in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned.  This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.   ”  – James Arthur Baldwin

“Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”  – John F. Kennedy

The devil in our identity?

I finished watching The War of the World over the weekend in a very sober frame of mind.   Niall Ferguson argues persuasively that the history of the twentieth century has more to do with tribal warfare and ethnic conflict than with geopolitics.  It reminded me that the devil is often in the system, or, more accurately, the devil is often in the identities we give ourselves and others.  The rallies and protests in the US which occurred as I watched the documentary, also reminded me that politics is another sphere where ideology is used to create strong group affiliations.

Although Jeremy Rifkin talks optimistically about The Empathic Civilisation and the growth in man’s empathic compass, with ever greater inclusivity in our group affiliation, affiliation also has a flip side, in that those who we don’t identify with are always outside that compass and at risk whenever circumstances require reaffirmation of our tribe or reaction to external threats.

We are who we identify with

Social identity theory is based on the simple idea that humans act as members of groups as well as individuals, and that behaviour in any situation will reflect some mix of the individual and the collective depending on the context.  Warfare is often cited as one of the clearest examples of the collective end of this spectrum, where our personal identities become subsumed to the characteristics of the group.  Indeed, these characteristics often have quite strong negative connotations and could be more accurately described as pathologies.

Niall Ferguson shows many examples of this, across the whole of the twentieth century and into the current one.  He points out that the more pathological group behaviours are often associated with times of economic and political upheaval.  For example, the 30s depression (and the economic legacy of the First World War) triggered the rise of nationalism in Germany.  Our current turbulent economic times have already led to strong political reactions (such as the weekend’s events in the US and greater protectionism in many countries) and may yet lead to more pathological behaviours depending on how events develop.

Know who your friends are

Social identity is merely another heuristic our brain uses to simplify decision making.  In The Simple Secrets of Branding we wrote about how brands reflect our brain’s search for simple tools to maximise efficiency of choices.  Brands themselves have often used the tools of social identity to create loyalty and affiliation among users.  Only this week Roger Dooley wrote in his Neuromarketing blog about how Apple and Steve Jobs have built a group of (sometimes fanatical) loyalists by creating a culture of “Us Versus Them”.  One of his interesting observations is the focus of Apple’s advertising on people rather than products or brands – comparisons are made in terms of users and not the brands they are using.

Seth Godin has written extensively on the topic of Tribes and you can watch his TED presentation on this subject below:

Seth Godin on Tribes

Who is the enemy?

We all develop group loyalty very quickly and easily, even when no “real” differences exist, through simple acts which create emotional investment in identification.  For example, in one experiment subjects started to form strong emotional bonds with others in a group which was only based on their answer to a question (comparing two paintings), leading to group-centric behaviours (us versus them).  Forming affiliations help us to categorise ourselves more simply, giving us identity, and creating boundaries with others.

Seth Godin focuses on the importance of leaders and stories in building tribes, something which is also reflected in theories of branding which look at brands as belief systems (or mythologies).  For example, would Apple be Apple without Steve Jobs and its simple start in someone’s garage?

Who created you?

In Primalbranding, Patrick Hanlon takes this mythological view of brand identity to its natural conclusion, following in the footsteps of Joseph Campbell’s work on the comparison of mythologies across geographies and time.  Hanlon views brands as “belief systems” and identifies seven key elements essential to all such systems:

1) A creation story (Coca-Cola was first mixed by John Pemberton as a medicinal drink and sold at a small chemist shop in the late 19th century, but do you know how Pepsi Cola came into being?)

2) A creed (Nike wearers “Just do it” but what do adidas and Reebok wearers do?)

3) Icons (Doctor Disruption’s is a car horn, but what is your brand’s icon?)

4) Rituals (Guinness relies on ritual to give itself identity)

5) Pagans, or non-believers (Apple are ‘us’, Microsoft and others are ‘them’)

6) Sacred words, or lexicon (Starbucks has created a new dictionary of coffee terms)

7) Leader (Richard Branson is the ultimate example of an individual who creates a brand identity, although there are many examples in politics)

Again, a key part of identity is to be clear on what you are not, as well as what you are (a key principle of semiotic analysis).  The ‘notness’ principle is seen strongly in many religious and political belief systems.

Differentiate your customers as well as your brand

Not every brand has or needs such an elaborate system, although all brands benefit from a structured approach to developing their identity.  Of course, creating a strong identity is key to building a sustainable brand, but a strong identity takes time to develop, and is built from increasing consumers’ emotional investment through shared experiences and, yes, shared beliefs.

To go back to The Simple Secrets of Branding, the lessons of identity primarily reflect the importance of standing out from the crowd and getting noticed.  This is always helped by providing simple symbolic cues (colours, words, rituals, and other memory triggers) and being consistent.

Above all, focus on people.  People do not identify with products, nor do they identify with brands.  People identify with other people.


The War of the World: A New History of the 20th Century by Niall Ferguson (2008)

Mythos by Joseph Campbell (1996)

Primalbranding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company and Your Future by Patrick Hanlon (2006)

One thought on “The Problem of Identity

  1. jonathan

    How true – in this mixed up- muddled-up , shook up world ( to quote the Kinks ) it is increasingly difficult to know who you are rather than who you should be . Maybe this is caused by the ceaseless battering we get from modern media , but I get the feeling we struggle to belong to anything real , which is why Starbucks has scored so well with its community marketing and Apple have triumphed with their stores where people genuinely feel they are treated as brothers .

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