Identify Yourself

Aristotle and Buddha are at Twilight movie marathon and there’s a break between the first and second films. They find each other at by the chips and dips table, Buddha nods politely to Aristotle.

“Try the hummus. It’s divine,” says Buddha.

“Cheers. Great party huh, so who are you?” Aristotle asks.

“…” Buddha pauses for a moment.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom,” Aristotle adds, helpfully.

“There is no self”, Buddha remarks.

A long philosophical discussion follows over broken corn chips and carrot sticks, both in search of a definite truth on what it means to have an identity.

For us laymen it’d be much easier to grasp this idea of the self if we’re able to somehow anchor it to something more grounded. In lieu of holy enlightenment, let’s cover a few ways an identity can be described.

Objects as reflections of our self

In their book Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong suggest that we are not as transparent to ourselves as we’d like. Though we may have suspicions, hunches, vague musings and strangely mixed emotions, it all escapes definition. They suggest that art and objects have an ability to help understand ourselves.

“Even on limited budgets, we spend a lot of time worrying about interior decoration, about objects we use to communicate our identities to the world… We’re trying to let others know about our characters in a way that words might not permit.”

We decorate our homes with meaningful objects as a way to explain something intangible and emotional. This goes in some way to explain why some of our friends, much as we love them, have questionable tastes in home decor. Yet somehow we understand them a lot more because of it.

Identifying with a tribe

One of my favourite Dr Seuss books is “The Butter Battle”, a retelling of the cold war arms race between two villages on either side of a stone wall. On one side, the Yooks eat their bread with the butter side up, while the Zooks on the other eat with the butter side down. The two sides despise each other’s ideology so much that they cannot bear sharing a common border. The book ends with both sides inches away from dropping bombs on each other.

While the book taught me about the dangers of divisive thinking, it also brought to light the idea of belonging to something larger than oneself. It is only through our differences that we start aligning ourselves with people we believe we are more alike, even if it means going to war.

We are what we buy into

We live in a consumer culture, fast fashion, fast food, fast identities. It’s a logical step that we’ve begun to identify ourselves with the things we buy. We have begun to identify ourselves with brands.

“I’m an iPhone guy” is not a ridiculous statement, strangely.

Apple is an easy example, but they have an amazing cult-like following. Let’s unpack what successful brands, like Apple, do to gain this kind of high-level affinity. While it may partly lay in their products and services, it actually runs much deeper. For a moment, let’s shift the perspective away from what the brands offer, and onto the customer that interacts with them.

In the age that we live in, where things are easier bought than earned, customers long to be the heroes within their own journey to self-discovery. This is important to understand. A brand’s true worth is actually in how what they do empowers the customers to out their quest to greatness.

The best brand builders see greatness in their customers and figure out ways to enable it. — Marty Neumeier, Brand Flip

I am the type of person that thinks differently. I value good design. That’s why I have an iPhone.

I am the type of person that supports local business. That’s why I shop at IGA.

I believe it’s fashionable to be social and environmentally conscious while looking good in jeans. I only wear Nudie jeans.

A brand that is able to offer an emotional transaction, one that helps them become the person they want to be, is one that will grow a tribe. Brands that don’t, they compete for a customer segment. Customers no longer want to enter a transaction to merely buy a product or service. They want to become more than what they currently are.

Building an identity

Look at these brands and how they sell us aspirations:

  • North Face, Never Stop Exploring.
  • Airbnb, Belong anywhere.
  • Apple, Think different.

The best way for a brand to engage the people they want to serve is to provide them with an opportunity for self fulfilment. Customers are people too — and as people we don’t buy products, we look for is meaning in our lives. Whether you are a business owner or a designer working on a brand, it’s worth asking the question — “is this brand helping the customer build their identity?”

Not sure where to start? Try adding value to your brand, with the ultimate goal of helping the consumer attain a higher sense of self. Here are some options:

  1. Be authentic - offer the real thing and be understood
  2. Stand for something - be a symbol to anchor an identity
  3. Provide guidance - add support, and learning
  4. Offer hope - offer a chance of future success
  5. Patronage - help customers support a cause
  6. Provide a connection - where people can connect as a tribe

In an age where we all search for identity, brands have an extraordinary opportunity to grow tribes of like minded individuals. Maybe, this shift away from the offering and the consumer is the way to go. People leverage brands to become better people. Under that lens it’s clear to see that a brand’s job is not to sell or move products. It’s to empower the individual (within a tribe) to be the best person they can be.

As people start to gather by the TV while the opening scene begins in the second movie, Aristotle and Buddha are still deep in conversation. They seem to be at an impasse and agree to continue their conversation later. Walking to the lounge room, Aristotle asks…

“So, are you team Edward or team Jacob?”

“Edward, of course.” Buddha replies

“Oh good, Jacob sucks.”