The brilliant cover of a 2006 Communication Arts magazine
I may not have believed you back in my university days when I devoured books like Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Kalle Lasn’s Culture Jam, but I now work as a marketing professional. In fact, I enjoy working with brands.
I’ve chosen to pursue work that involves non-profits and charities rather than large corporate entities. This is how I’ve endeavored to make my work meaningful and put my skills to use in a way that hopefully makes the world a bit better.
A good understanding of the dark side of capitalism has certainly worked in my favour, because a healthy dose of cynicism does help to keep your feet on the ground, but what really prepared me for this kind of work has been my own fascination with identity.
Deconstructing Identity (It’s Complicated)
This topic fascinates me.
Identity is a funny thing that we all kind of take for granted. It’s one of those things that makes a lot of sense until you start to look closely at it, at which point you realize it’s all very messy and complicated.
I’m interested in looking at our society’s understanding and expression of abstract concepts like self, gender, race, and nature, and how these are reflected in our media and popular culture. I’ve found that I enjoy taking neat and tidy ideas and deconstructing them to tatters. It’s really about asking the right questions.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Ask yourself, what colour is the sky?
It’s blue, of course. You’ve known that since you were a little kid.
The sky is blue.
But wait a second. I’m guessing you’re a pretty observant person and have some real life experience with this sky thing. You’ve probably looked directly at it most days, if not every day of your life so far.
So if you truly wanted to tell me what colour the sky is, you’d have asked me these very important questions:
What time of day is it?
The sky can be yellow, orange, red, purple, gold, dark blue or black depending on when you look.
What is the weather like?
The sky can be white or grey when it’s cloudy or dark grey with stormy weather.
Don’t even get me started on whether there were clouds, or stars, or whether the moon was out or if you happened to be in the right area to see comets or aurora borealis….
If you answered that the sky is blue you just illustrated that, despite what you know from experience about the real sky, you tend to fall back on simplified concepts that are merely social constructions of our understanding of the world. Like everyone else does.
The sky is blue…sometimes.
These social constructions apply to people too. When I tell you that gender is really a spectrum rather than a coin flip, are you surprised? What if I told you that it’s difficult to scientifically define a person as male or female because there are so many biological variables?
Things we take for granted and think we know really well, even basic stuff like who we are as people, are difficult to define once you start trying to pin down the details.
Believe it or not there is no real-life Voight-Kampff Test that could accurately determine your gender or even your biological sex.
Or whether Rachel is a lesbian.
Branding is Constructing Identity
As much as I love taking simple taken-for-granted ideas and messing them up into chaotic spirals of complication, I ALSO love taking complicated, poorly-defined ideas and smoothing them out into simple, intuitive concepts that you can communicate in a neat and tidy way.
This is why I love branding.
Because branding is about defining an organization’s identity, and it’s about asking some very simple/complicated questions.
Who am I?
Who am I not?
How do I define myself?
What do I value?
How do I differ from others?
How am I the same as others?
What do others see in me?
Does their view match what am I trying to communicate?
How does the way I exist in the world impact others?
It’s that exercise of drawing solid boundaries around identity that is fun and fascinating to me.
Every organization – whether you’re non-profit or business, whether you’ve been around for 3 years or 30 years – needs to deliberately define who they are and what they’re about.
It’s a crucial exercise that allows you to find and amplify your voice in a crowded marketplace.
And it’s the philosophical, beard-stroking side of marketing that I find really exciting.