We-dentity and Brand Relationships

By Matthias Höckh

Defining specific target groups is probably one of the most common practices within branding and marketing at large. For those groups, we pretend that their members act in the same way, all the time, at any place. Of course, this view makes life easier as it reduces complexity. However, I personally have always found it difficult to recognize real people with their manifold facets in those descriptions. From my perspective, the resulting relationships with the brand are often as artificial as those people.

One tool to appreciate the diversity of human personalities and incorporate this understanding into branding is the concept of we-dentities. The authors of a study by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI), a Swiss think tank, state that individuals have many identities that are activated and deactivated depending on the context. Instead of having one static identity, each person has, on average, ten different identities; together they form a person’s unique personality.

The important and interesting point is that every single we-dentity has its own individual set of values, behavior patterns, and relationship networks. This is a very intuitive, though often ignored, notion. Take the example of a Jason, a 35-year-old man: he has the role of team lead at a software company and, in his private life, the role as father of a 6-year-old daughter. The identities are very different, but they are both an integral part of Jason’s personality.

This differentiation between personality and (context-dependent) identity is crucial as it changes our understanding of how to connect to and build relationships with customers. As the we-dentities of one person can change quickly (just image Jason getting a call from his daughter at work), the context of brand-customer interactions is far more important than generally acknowledged. As a result, some members of a target group may be unreachable for brands in many contexts.

This has some very real implications, as shown by the authors of the GDI study, who cite deodorant brand Axe as an example. One of Axe’s European campaigns, which featured scarcely dressed young women, performed very well in various markets — except Italy. In Italy, more than in other European countries, Axe’s target group of young men in their twenties has a lot of members who still live with their parents. While watching Axe’s TV ads in the presence of their parents, the “son-identity” was active and the young men felt uncomfortable instead of being affected positively by the campaign. Again, the context of the communication is crucial for its success.

In a time when brands are desperately seeking to build stable relationships with their customers and create meaningful content, the concept of we-dentities delivers some valuable insights:

  • Diversity can equal stability. Instead of taking a fictional human being as basis for a target group, use one or several we-dentities. The difference is not only semantic: If brands embrace the many facets of individuals’ personalities instead of focusing only on one fraction, they can speak to the various we-dentities of a person. This results – if the brands are agile – in more diverse and more stable relationships across different contexts and situations.
  • Context is king. Content is important, no doubt about that. However, used in the wrong environment or at the wrong time, content is worthless or even bad for the brand. Context determines the we-dentity. This makes adapting the content to different contexts and aligning it with the brand’s core principles important.
  • Coherent beats consistent. The importance of context means that total brand consistency (on a visual and content level) is difficult to uphold, especially when trying to build relationships that are not confined to limited contexts. For brands that aim at a broader impact on their customers’ lives, it is better to aim for more flexible experiences that are coherent with the brand’s overall appeal rather than trying to repeat the same kind of experience over and over. That requires a certain degree of flexibility and agility within the brand’s positioning, its values, and other brand attributes. However, when brands embrace the differences of individuals, we-dentities, and contexts, they can deliver real value at the right time and in the right place. Ultimately, it is not so much about how the brand acts but on what principles its actions are based.

With ubiquitous social media and ever-progressing digitalization, relationship-building for brands has never been as easy and, at the same time, as hard as it is today. Integrating the concept of we-dentities into a branding strategy contributes to more diverse, genuine, and stable relationships between brands and their customers. To truly leverage the power of we-dentities, brands need to challenge existing paradigms, understand context, and be more flexible, empathic, and creative.

Matthias Höckh is a brand strategist with MetaDesign Berlin.

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