The Struggle for Identity

Take this quick test of identity: Let’s strip you of your name, your ethnicity and the country in which you normally live in. Do you know who you are then? How? Can anyone else now who you are then? Again, how?

Now, let’s take this one step deeper: let’s strip you, also, of your primary language (and if you only speak one language, let’s strip you of your ability to voice it, though you can still write it). Do you know who you are then? How? Can anyone else now who you are then? Again, how?

This interesting and quick thought experiment shows just how much of who we are depends on factors that exist outside our self. The reason identity is key to so much of what we consider to be business and marketing lies in the current set of unique circumstances that apply global stressors to local conditions.

Stressors, by definition, push our mental, psychological and sometimes physical resources to the limit. This strips away some of the things that made us who we are and forces us to both re-examine and re-evaluate our core values and motivation.

To better understand some of this I strongly urge you to listen to Errol Doebler, former Navy SEAL, former FBI Special Agent and all-round awesome human being, whose work on leadership in business is always worth keeping track of. Errol has also written a brilliant book on leadership, titled The Process, Art, and Science of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Confidence and Clarity in Combat, in the Boardroom, and at the Kitchen Table which I also highly recommend.

Some Of Your Identity Is Relative

Whether you are a person or a brand some of the identity you possess is a construct that’s made up of Centrality (how we see our self), Ingroup Affect (how we think others see us) and Ingroup Ties (how we behave because of how we think others see us).

Three key constituents of identity

Centrality is self-created. A person, for instance, can decide to be just, moral and ethical a business can decide to “don't be evil”. What happens next depends on how this is communicated to the world at large and manifested through the actions of the person or business.

The rest however is relative to the operational environment of the individual. It is defined by the value we place in the interactions we have with others and their perception of us. This works the same way at both individual and brand level. Companies behave according to our expectations of them and so do people.

Both, ultimately, look to maximize their own benefit. When everything is going smoothly it is easy to reflect the expectation of others because approximations aren’t really noticed and small deviations are mostly overlooked. When a stressor is in effect however (global credit crunch, a pandemic, global warming, an approaching asteroid,) the status quo that maintains the operational environment is upset. Calibration of our behaviour according to our values then becomes difficult if we rely only on those around us for guidance.

This is why decision-making becomes suddenly so hard, why companies that never truly embraced what they were supposed to stand for are wrong-footed in their marketing right now, why celebrities get it so very wrong.

Without a doubt we all play, to some extent, a role. That role is the outcome of our own internal beliefs, experience, thoughts and expectations filtered through the perception we have of the expectations of others and our perception of the external world. So, in a sense, we go through life walking through an internal model we have created that manifests itself in the external world through our actions.

Again, brands and individuals differ little in this respect. Because what we do doesn’t always align with what we want to do or think we should do, we experience a sense of cognitive dissonance. For the individual this takes the form of anxieties and doubts while for brands and companies it is manifested in the form of internal confusion in messaging, mistrust of the motives of individuals and a disconnect between the external image a brand presents and its internal culture.

Alignment Is Key

Marvin Chow, VP of marketing at Google suggests that in this challenging time of Covid-19 the best way to market is at “the sweet spot of empathy, ownability, and timeliness”. These are absolute musts as they always have been, but before we even get there we need to establish the self-check of aligning values with actions.

It’s actually a simple one. If something doesn’t tally with your values don’t do it. Only do (and say) things that reflect who you are and what you stand for.

It’s an approach that Andy Hargreaves noted involves the seven principles of sustainable leadership:

  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Planning
  • Priorities
  • Proactive
  • Listening
  • Learning

You should check out the full PDF, here.

So, in this new marketing reality we are experiencing, it’s time to find out who you truly are.


Go Deeper: 

Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully by David Amerland   The Sniper Mind by David Amerland