How To Leverage Your Brand as a Vehicle for Your Audience’s Self-Expression

January 15, 2018 Nicola Brown

personal brand

Throughout history, humans have sought new and distinctive ways to express their personal identity and group memebership.

Cave paintings made 14,000 years ago reveal some of the first artists’ signatures, the charcoaled outline of a hand. Though it’s impossible to know our ancestors’ intentions, we at least know that they cared enough to do so. Researchers believe that such symbols could have been tribal—a mark of social group cohesion. Could these be the first ever logos?

As the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book Sapiens, humans evolved to categorize the world in terms of “us” versus “them.” We constantly define ourselves as belonging to the in-group and being distinct from the out-group(s). Accordingly, we could view logos and brands as extensions of this psychological drive to categorize our world and define how we fit into it.

How Consumers Use Brands to Express Their Personal Identity

A recent study published in the journal Procedia—Social and Behaviorial Sciences found that “in addition to expressing their identity through the everyday choices they make, consumers will often seek new ways in which they can express their personal identity through brands.” Consumers use brands as a lifestyle “beacon” to signal particular values, choices, and behaviors that are important to their sense of self. People actually prefer many brands over others to the degree that they can be used to project their values and lifestyle goals.

Julie Anne Quay, founder of fashion boutique VFiles, told the New York Times: “People look for communities and families to belong to. They’re saying, ‘I identify with that.’ It’s just like wearing a football jersey.” In the same article, Humberto Leon, co-owner and creative director of fashion brand Opening Ceremony remembers growing up in suburban California in the ’90s “where among young people, the logo or the brand was what created these mini-communities.”

This use of brands as a tool of self-expression has been strengthened by the emergence of new communication technologies. Geoff Smith writing for Inc. cites recent studies that reveal that, contrary to popular commentary, brand loyalty is higher than ever among millennials, thanks to social media.

How Brands Can Become Self-Expression Vehicles

1. Position your brand as a lifestyle brand

Start by emphasizing values and behaviors in your marketing campaigns over functions and features of your products and services. People want to know how your brand can help them define themselves and live their lives, so show them examples.

IKEA is a master of lifestyle positioning for its products. They depict families, relationships, and moments in life in their marketing. These elements are the focus, not the backdrop of the room with the IKEA bed, closet, and chest of drawers. Through these little everyday scenes, the audience imagine themselves living out similar realities; they see how IKEA helps define their own lifestyle.

2. Don’t take yourself too seriously

One of the most effective marketing tactics in the social media universe is allowing yourself to be playful with your image and messaging. It’s well-received by a digital native generation jaded by such a bombardment of advertising.

Old Spice is a perfect example of how playfulness and humor can elevate and distinguish an unremarkable product—body wash—creating a kind of cult following.

The “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad did a brilliant job of poking fun at advertising. The Old Spice ad enchanted millions of fans with this don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously approach, not to mention astutely identifying and targeting the people who tend to make the purchasing decisions on household products. Old Spice’s audience identified with this playfulness (and perhaps a slight disdain for advertising); it fit their personality, outlook, and ideals.

3. Let your brand remain flexible over time

People change. While you may have been all about saving money with Mr. Noodle dinners in university, perhaps you’re more about seeking a good work–life balance and a fancy meal out once in a while now.

Moleskine has been around for a long time, but they know exactly how to evolve with the times and stay relevant for their target audience—not a small feat for a company selling bound volumes of paper in a digital age.

Moleskine notebook

Image attribution: Jan Kahánek

Moleskine has cleverly tapped into two sentiments which, if I am any indication, are often somewhat contrarily held by the same person: a nostalgia for print and a desire to keep up with new tech. They invoke their historic popularity with the likes of Hemingway and Picasso while developing digital products like a smart notebook and app.

4. Tell rich stories through quality content

Good storytelling is the best way to get people to identify with your brand, see themselves living your brand’s lifestyle, and share that self-expression with others. Good content isn’t about advertising your products, it’s about offering real value to your audience and giving them a way for them to define themselves through using, displaying, and sharing your brand as a signal of personality, values, and goals.

TED is one of the best examples of a brand that’s synonymous with quality content. It’s one my favorite go-to sources for brainstorming new ideas and referencing expert facts and opinions. It’s also an engaging format for sharing with others. What I love about TED is that it doesn’t employ any of the flashy attention-grabbing gimmicks of many other pieces of content I find online. It succeeds on its own merits by telling good stories. This is how it’s built a loyal, long-term following who believe in and identify with the values and goals of TED. Why not try this talk on genius and creativity on for size?

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Featured image attribution: Eye for Ebony

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