Do brands give consumers a sense of identity?
by Dennis Bruce

"Why be yourself when you can be someone else?" shouts a sign, on the sidewalk outside a theatre on King Street West in Toronto. Haven't we all, at one time or another, wanted to be someone else? Someone taller, handsomer, fitter, slimmer, smarter, wittier, richer, more accomplished, more celebrated. (Personally, I'd just settle for being myself with more hair.)

Much has been written about the self-hatred that many women feel in the face of the obsession in the media with perfect bodies, hair, smiles, teeth and sexuality.

For German theologian, Helmut Thielicke, one of the great tragedies of life is that many people are so unhappy with their own identity that they covet someone else's. That may explain our endless fascination with the beautiful, the rich, the famous and the powerful who inhabit glossy magazines and populate television and movie screens. Fantasizing about being like them, enables us, for a brief moment, to escape our own inadequacies, limitations and disappointments.

In an article I wrote for this magazine a few months ago, I said that when brand stories resonate with our personal stories, we adopt those brands as our own. My point was that we use brands to help us construct a more desirable identity. After the article appeared, a copywriter friend challenged me: "How can you say that people put together a sense of identity out of the brands they use?" he said. "Surely, personal identity must be based on something deeper and more profound."

He's right, of course. If we are to realize our full potential as human beings and live lives filled with meaning and purpose, our personal identity must have a more secure foundation than the brands we use. In self-defense, let me point out that I didn't say brands gave us a total sense of identity. Brand stories, alone, can never provide a durable and satisfactory identity. If the only identity we have comes from brands, we're in deep trouble. Unadulterated materialism destroys the psyche.

Viennese psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, who spent three grim years in Auschwitz and other Nazi prisons during World War 2, observed that the prisoners whose identities lay solely in their former wealth and possessions were the first to succumb to the brutalities of prison life and die. However, those, for whom the meaning of life lay in the more spiritual realm of faith and relationships, survived. The "will to meaning", he concluded, is the central motivating force of life itself. In his book, "Man's Search for Meaning", Frankl quotes Neitzsche, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."

Still, in our hectic, demanding, materialistic society, many people, driven by what Frankl calls an "existential vacuum" do grab on to brands for a sense of identity. A pair of Levis jeans, a Gap shirt, a Rolex watch, a Hugo Boss suit and a Porsche 911, all confer a sense of identity on the consumer. Marketers and advertisers know this and position their brands to exploit this basic need for meaning and identity. Deplored though this may be in thoughtful circles, it is, nonetheless, a fact of life.

Consider this report in a recent "Facts and Arguments" column in the Globe and Mail: "The sun beams down on a tiny glen in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains - a radiant afternoon for an outdoor wedding," writes Melanie Wells in Forbes Magazine (April 16, 2001). "A light breeze stirs as the Reverend James S. Massie Jr looks out over 250 love-struck people assembled for a mass ceremony. After reading the vows, Massie, an Episcopal priest, takes a deep breath and leans towards the microphone: 'By the power vested in me, I pronounce that you are…car and driver.' Strange but true. A bunch of people have just married their Mazda Miatas."

Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist and author of The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, explains: "We all need to be a part of something larger than ourselves. If you're part of, say, Harley-Davidson, you can feel that this movement has existed before you were born and will continue beyond your finite life span."

When I read that story, I had a hard time taking it seriously. But it poses a serious question to all who manage brands. If consumers do indeed construct identities from their accumulation of brands, what happens when crisis in life threatens that identity? Found wanting, the backlash against those brands could be extremely difficult to manage. Better that marketers realize their brands can never meet the fundamental needs of human identity and create brand stories that are proportional and sensitive to the nature of what it is to be truly human.

My Rolex tells me it's time to quit.

 


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