Why not why?

Identity is slippery. In many ways it’s humanity’s central question. With the rise of purpose-driven advertising, it seems that the identity question applies to all companies too. Dr. Nick Coates explains (with a little help from Lewis Carroll) how brands can figure out what they stand for.

Nick Coates

Global Creative Consultancy Director at C Space

Dr. Nick Coates is C Space’s Global Creative Consultancy Director and a practitioner of what’s known in the trade as Industrial Judo (more commonly known as turning problems on their heads). He boasts over 20 years’ research experience, and a prestigious AQR Prosper Riley-Smith Qualitative Excellence Award under his belt. Fun fact: Nick’s doctorate is in French Caribbean Literature.

 

 

 

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar, sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice. “Because I’m not myself, you see.”

One of the most enjoyable sights of 2018 was watching commentators getting all hot and bothered about purpose and purpose-driven advertising. It’s a topic full of paradox and delightful topsy-turviness. Could it really be that the less you talk about your products (and the more you share your purpose) the more people want them? Why before what.

The big event was the Nike Kaepernick ad. It certainly wasn’t to everyone’s taste. “What was Nike thinking?” tweeted the cartoon orange, egg-shaped, Trumpty-Dumpty, as he teetered with rage atop his imaginary wall. And yet the evidence showed a shrewd and confident move from Nike – sales up 31%.

When LUSH called out undercover police activity, Gillette tried to revise a version of masculinity it had partly created, and Pepsi tried to hijack important social issues (the Kendall Jenner ad) it all went to prove two things: purpose can be relevant but talking about purpose demands authenticity. You can’t fake it!

And the numbers prove it: LUSH’s credibility drove a sales lift (despite the controversy). Gillette saw no change, while Pepsi had to pull its ad and has struggled to recover.

So “why” isn’t enough by itself – it’s a question of identity. And identity is slippery. In many ways it’s humanity’s central question (as the Caterpillar is central to Alice): “Who are you?” “Why are you here?” Brands with confident images that speak to consumers’ existing or aspirational sense of identity create the strongest emotional bonds, because they complete gaps in our own stories about ourselves. And yet brand identity is kaleidoscopic, a dance of meaning based on context and conversation. Part of the paradox of identity is that it defines itself as much by what it isn’t as what it is. This is normal: societies and languages often evolved to keep people out (as well as draw them together).

In-groups also demand out-groups. So, when it comes to helping brands figure out how to say what they stand for, don’t forget the two-way mirror. Alice’s adventures are partly a parable of identity; like Gulliver before her, changing size (perspective) helps her learn to know herself better. In our work with brands in very diverse categories, perspective switching also helps. After all, how do you reconcile cheese spray and high-end biscuits for one of the largest food & beverage companies; mascara, hearing aids and tablets for an iconic beauty retailer and pharmacy brand, Michelin-starred restaurants, nightclubs and pool parties for a multinational restaurant chain?

Because we believe that organizations need the courage to question, to be humble about identity questions, we embrace wonderland: we have people write brand love letters and break-up letters; we sketch heaven and hell, the dark and light; we ask why things will fail, not just why they’ll succeed; we play with inventing opposites and switching identities; we build worlds with and without brands in; we take sides and stage battles; we run war games; we debate what’s right to do and also what right we have to do it.

Identity (and purpose) are polarities. So start inside (strong brand DNA leaves useful traces and stories). But challenge yourself by looking outside-in. Be humble. Be vulnerable. Invite critique. Play with stories. Try them out. Debate and throw rocks. Explore your boundaries. Let them be your mirror. Ask “why?” But also, why not try “why not?”

Here are 5 workshop techniques you can use to explore your brand identity:

Battles
Take sides on a topic and argue it out, playground style. Don’t hold back.

Art from Within
Take a leaf out of the surrealists’ book and try drawing your feeling, without letting the pastel stop moving.

World Without
Imagine (and build) a world in which your brand/product doesn’t exist. What’s missing? What’s better?

Sacred Cows
State – and then slay – your limiting assumptions. Encourage candour and sort and sift the myths, taboos and half-truths.

Love (or Break-up) Letters
Pour passion/vitriol into 400 words of relationship narrative, the spark, highs, and lows, pull and push.

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