Cross-cultural psychologist Esther Perel is famed for her insight into modern relationships, but speaking recently, her words brought clarity to the complexities of the brand work we do. She argued that the “production economy” our grandparents lived in and the “service economy” of our parents’ generation have given way to the “identity economy” – where the fundamental driver in a relationship is the desire “to become the best version of yourself”.
For this generation, life becomes an identity project with the central questions being “who am I, and who are you going to help me become?” – and this has never been more apparent than as we exit 2020. As people ponder how the pandemic has defined – or redefined – themselves, they are looking afresh at how the brands in their lives reflect their identity.
Brands often work hard to understand their consumers, but all the while they focus primarily on asking themselves about themselves. But Perel’s analysis made me wonder if we’re busy staring into the wrong end of the telescope.
In this new “age of identity”, maybe we need to reverse that thinking. What if the brand that matters most – the one we need to obsess over – isn’t our brand, but the “brand me” of each individual making up this identity generation?
As brand guardians we need to start thinking less about who or why our brand is; and more about how and why anyone might choose our brand to express (to themselves and their world) who they are, where they’re going and what they are all about.
We should focus less on how we tell our brand’s story and more on how “generation identity” can best use our brand as proof points and projections of their individual identity, their unique “brand me”.
That’s a huge reversal of our typical thinking. And it’s nowhere near as simple as it might sound: the days of clear roles and rules are over. Everything must be negotiated – and that includes identity.
A recent GLAAD survey found that 12% of the population identifies as LGBT+ and as Ipsos Thinks put it in its Beyond the Binary report, the emerging “wide variety of possible lifestyles, attitudes and behaviours have led to a breakdown in homogeneity. This does include sexuality, but it extends to other areas of life.”
Clearly all brands ought to stop thinking in the old models and embrace this ambiguity. But it’s especially important for those that have long thought of themselves as “identity brands” like fashion, cosmetics, cars and alcohol.
As far back as 2015 half of millennials believed that gender shouldn't be limited to the categories of male and female. Young people are starting to act accordingly with brand choices. For instance, only a minority (39%) of teens in 2018 prefer to buy gender-specific shoes. So, fashion brands that plaster their storefronts with a Pride rainbow flag to signal LGBT+ support and continue to segregate menswear and womenswear seem to have rather missed the point.
Gender is only the tip of the identity iceberg. We’re seeing a growing rejection of the binary around sexuality too. Whereas 88% of Baby Boomers in 2018 identified as exclusively heterosexual, the figure falls markedly as we move through the age groups: 85% for Gen X; 71% for millennials; and only 66% for Generation Z.
Acknowledging and respecting the full range of sexual and gender identities isn’t just a business opportunity for brands, it’s also a social imperative.
If “Who am I, and who can you help me be?” is the great question of the age, we simply must work harder to understand all the ways that people identify. If we’re to represent “generation identity” in our ideas and the things we make and do, there’s much for us to explore and understand.
So, as we emerge from the year of the pandemic and people have had time to acclimatise and assess the full impact of 2020, it’s a moment to reflect. As this new decade dawns, I’m going to make three simple promises to myself: to keep reminding myself that the most important brand we should be thinking about is everyone’s “brand me”; to encourage the people, organisations and brands in my life to look beyond the binary in all aspects of identity; and to think more about how people might use our brand to help them tell their brand story. Not just the other way round.
I’ve no idea where that will get us to by the time 2030 dawns. But I’m more excited than I’ve ever been about exploring those possibilities.
Lori Meakin is a founder of Joint