Blurred lives

We might be different around different people but for brands, identity must be consistent, says Faris Yakob

There is a contextual fluidity to identity – we are different people around different people. That isn’t to say we are dissembling, rather that identity is a complex intersectional construct and we don’t have all of us on display, all the time. Certain situations and people bring out certain aspects of us and that is the particular facet through which people perceive the whole. That also doesn’t mean you are being different people each time – consistency is a defining characteristic of, well, character. What kind of person is she? A happy person. This means “She is usually happy“. Without any consistency, you perhaps couldn’t be easily characterised at all. You could be erratic, but only if you were consistently so. That said, normal humans tend towards coherence, whereas liars have to be consistent. It would be strange if someone was happy literally all of the time, no matter what.

Now what happens when lots of different people are with you at the same time? Or indeed all the time?

The idea of identity changes online. The distinction between your private and your professional life begins to blur the more you share, and sharing online has become necessary, or is at least considered a key component, for success in professional life. We distribute our identities across platforms and how we act on LinkedIn, Twitter or TikTok is different, shaped by the platform itself and the social grammar around it. We are large and contain multitudes.

As with everything else nowadays, identity has been ‘politicised’ and the liberal leaning are often accused of having become obsessed with identity politics and pronouns. This framing is designed to render the lived experience of anyone who doesn’t conform neatly to the dominant group in society as peripheral, merely a distraction. Oddly, based on volume of coverage, the conservative leaning parties and media seem far more obsessed with pronouns and culture war infractions, even if most voters don’t seem to care during the current cost of living crisis. It’s almost as though the culture war itself is a distraction designed to draw attention away from tax cuts for the wealthy and dodgy deals done by those clinging on to power.

The choices a country makes through its legislature impacts different groups differently and therefore identity is always political. Decisions about the social safety net don’t impact the wealthy, personally. The framing attempts to render anyone in a minority as being irrelevant to majority concerns of the body politic. Some minorities get largely ignored in the discourse whereas billionaires are well represented, considering how few of them there are. July is Disability Pride Month but you wouldn’t know that based on the absence of brand pandering or articles about it. People with disabilities are the world’s largest minority but rarely get mentioned in DE&I conversations because the culture wars have set the terms of debate.

Identity is always fluid, we just don’t believe that it is. Young people should be as fluid as possible, experimenting with different versions of themselves, trying out different careers and lifestyles, so that they are more likely to find a life that suits them better than just defaulting to whatever was around them growing up. As we age our personalities change significantly, but we don’t believe they will. When we look back we seem quite different, naive even, but looking forward we tend to assume we have gotten everything worked out now and thus will never change our minds again. This illusion of consistency is why people in their twenties think they will be going to nightclubs forever. Weirdly, some aspect of our minds understands at some deep level that our future selves are strangers. When we think about our future selves, FMRI studies show your brain starts operating as though it were thinking about a different person. That’s why it’s so easy to offload stuff you don’t want to do onto ‘future you’, even if the future is just Monday morning.

Brands, however, don’t tend towards fluidity of identity

The primary strategic function of brand identity is to impose consistency on operations and utterances from companies, to allow consumers to build an aggregate set of associations over time, which creates defensible price premiums by making decisions easier. The academic wing of the industry has been loudly proclaiming the importance of consistency, repetition, distinctive brand assets, and long term thinking for over a decade, in line with their own advice. We spend vanishingly small amounts of time with or thinking about any brand, compared to a person in our lives. Thus, to build a cohesive brand from tiny fragments one must be consistent.

Through our consulting we see evidence that this thinking has embedded across clients and agencies alike. The idea of strategic positioning, or brand identity, is built around working out who you want to appeal to and then not trying to be all things to all people. Your brand can’t be for everyone, say the positioning guru, pointing to finite funds, but you should also be targeting the whole buying audience of mostly light buyers to drive growth through penetration. Creatives struggle when the insight into the audience goes back to the broadest media descriptors – the whole buying audience, that could mean everyone, so generic outcomes become more likely.

It is claimed that the newer generations are more ‘fluid’ than prior ones have been. Even if that is a youth behavior, it is true that the buying audiences, especially in the UK and USA, are becoming more diverse and that people now feel more free to express their identities in novel forms outside mainstream defaults, at least in certain cities or states. Mass market brands will need to appeal to an ever more complex coalition of customers.

Despite current perceived wisdom, agencies and their clients have been very successful believing something different. I got to work briefly with Alex Bogusky, just after he was named creative director of the decade. He preferred surprise to consistency and believed you could change anything, the logo or the name of a product for example, and that consumers would follow you, if the ideas were good enough to earn attention. That was the key, to garner coverage for the advertising, because competing on media spend is a losing game for any challenger brand or agency. Interestingly, considering the current identity concerns, for the longest time during their heyday, CPB briefs didn’t have a target audience section on them. Alex believed that if it’s a good idea, a big enough idea, built from a cultural tension, it will work for everyone, or at least get everyone’s attention.

Faris Yakob, Author and Co-Founder, Genius Steals

Faris Yakob is the co-founder (with his wife Rosie) of the nomadic creative consultancy Genius Steals and the online learning community The School of Stolen Genius. They have been working with brands, agencies of all disciplines and sizes, media companies and conferences around the world for the last decade, delivering keynotes, workshops, training and brand and business consulting.Their newsletter, Strands of [Stolen] Genius, was named one of the ‘7 Essential Reads for the Curious Creative’ by Hubspot and one of the top community resources for strategists in the world by the Planning Survey.Previously, he was Chief Innovation Officer of MDC Partners, Chief Digital Officer of McCann Erickson (NYC) and spent many years at pioneering communication strategy agency Naked, in London, Sydney and NYC. While in agencies, he won (as both a strategist and a creative director) and judged numerous awards, including the Effies, One Show, ADC, Clios and LIAs.Faris Yakob is the author Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World which was published in an updated second edition by Kogan Page in 2021 and is a contributing author to Creative Superpowers: Equip Yourself For The Age of Creativity, & Eat Your Greens: Fact Based Thinking to Improve Your Brand’s Health.

All articles