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The Death of Identity: Intro to Interactionist Branding


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The Death of Identity: An Introduction to Interactionist Branding.
Customers interact with brands in ways that were unimaginable back when the rules of branding were originally written. So it's time to rewrite the rules. Interactionist Branding is a system for managing the meaning of a brand via managing individual customer relationships with the brand and fulfilling the brand roles these relationships dictate--an actionable framework for brand development, deployment, signaling, reignition and optimization. With academic grounding in the sociological theories of Herbert Blumer, Interactionist Branding is the next edge of identity and meaning management systems--blending the best of established branding methodologies and strategies with CRM mechanisms, tactics and one-to-one communications.

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The Death of Identity: Intro to Interactionist Branding

  1. 1. The Death of Identity An introduction to Interactionist Branding author: Haydn Sweterlitsch VP, Creative Director RTCRM, a Wunderman Network Agency Washington, DC February 2009 contact: Twitter: Haydn_S 202.299.7496
  2. 2. The Death of Identity An introduction to Interactionist Branding by Haydn Sweterlitsch As the landscape of communications continues to undergo tectonic shifts, so also do the rules of our industry. The trend of customers shifting from passively experiencing brand signals to actively engaging and interacting with brands has steepened and accelerated, with no terminal point in sight. Managing a brand’s meaning is no longer a challenge of steering perception with proclamations and expressions of who/what a brand is, the values it stands for and what it looks like. It hasn’t been for a long time. And simple awareness has never been a valid all-purpose indicator of a brand’s health and actualization with regards to performance, power and place in the life of customers. The next school of meaning management Now more than ever, the meaning of a brand is The academic groundwork for this approach defined by the role it plays in its relationships with to meaning management occurs in the work of customers. The sum of the interactions a customer sociologist Herbert Blumer, and is crystallized in his has with a brand not only defines the role this brand essay “The Methodological Position of Symbolic plays in the customer’s life, but also provides an Interactionism.”1 actionable guide for how the brand needs to treat One basic premise of Symbolic Interactionism is that that customer. To successfully manage the role of a humans act toward other people, objects, etc., on brand (and thus its meaning), you must manage the the basis of the meanings those people and things relationships it has with customers. have for them. A second one is that the meaning of a This is the basis of the theory of Interactionist thing is derived from the social interaction a person Branding and the Brand Role System of meaning has with that thing. Third, the meanings we ascribe management. It was developed by re-examining to things are modified via an interpretive, iterative how to effectively manage a brand’s meaning in process we employ in our interactions with those an ever-changing communications milieu where things. customer-initiated brand interactions continue to We can logically extend Blumer’s premises of grow in volume and consequence. Interactionist Symbolic Interactionism to describe our approach to Branding and the Brand Role System point to the managing the meaning of a brand. To be precise, you next edge of communications: a true synthesis of act toward a brand based on the meaning that brand branding and customer relationship management has for you, which in turn comes from the interactions (CRM). you have with that brand. The meaning of a brand can and will continue to change as you continue to have interactions with that brand. next>role is the new identity The Death of Identity ©2009, Haydn Sweterlitsch 2
  3. 3. Role is the new identity Before we proceed, let us be clear: When we refer to “identity,” we do not refer to the “visual and verbal expression of a brand.”2 We refer to the concept of “identity” defined as an enduring personality or collection of persisting qualities and characteristics that determine the nature of a thing. This is a static concept. And it is the enduring, persistent nature of this very idea that renders “identity” an outdated construct for the purposes of creating, managing and optimizing brand meaning. Unlike an “identity,” a “role” is capable of shifting, evolving and reacting appropriately to fulfill the changing needs of a relationship. Before you accuse Interactionist Branding of being nothing more than a new term for old thinking—and think we’ve simply switched the word “identity” out for the word “role”—consider this: A role needs its counterpart to exist, while an identity may exist in a vacuum. One’s identity, in both theory and practice, endures even in the absence of interaction with others. One’s role, on the other hand, ceases to exist when not engaged in interaction with a counterpart. In fact, a role can only come into being through interaction. For it to exist, a role must be fulfilled. Relationships define meaning For example, if a teacher has no students to teach, To fulfill the role of teacher, she needs to interact the teacher cannot fulfill the role of teacher and with students, and they need to learn as a result of will, in fact, cease to be a teacher. It is only when this interaction. What is exchanged between them the exchange of instruction and learning occurs when they interact—the learning—makes up the between two participants that those participants economy of meaning in their relationship. And it is assume the roles of “teacher” and “student” and this meaning in their relationship that defines their take on the meanings inherent in those roles. The roles. teacher may think of herself as a teacher; she may The same holds true within the Brand Role even stand in front of a classroom looking, acting System. Whatever is exchanged between brand and behaving like a teacher. If the classroom is and customer when they interact defines their empty, though, she is not teaching (and so she is relationship. As this relationship occurs, the roles not a teacher). that brand and customer fulfill for each other are Now fill the empty classroom. Even with people defined. Many things are inherent in those defined at desks watching and listening to her act, look relationship roles: how they treat each other; the and sound like she is teaching, she may not be a proper tone, style and content of their interactions; teacher. Unless these people actually “learn” during what they get from each other; how they present their interaction with her, she is not fulfilling the role themselves to each other, etc. In short, meaning of teacher (nor are they students). is inherent in these relationship roles. So, if you successfully manage the relationship between brand and customer, you’re successfully managing the meaning of that brand to that customer. next>non-permanence is a brand virtue The Death of Identity ©2009, Haydn Sweterlitsch 3
  4. 4. Non-permanence is a brand virtue To drive a relationship between brand and customer that A single brand must be able to fulfill different roles is as sustained, deep, loyal and mutually beneficial as seamlessly, fluidly and effectively. Furthermore, the possible, the brand must have the flexibility to shift roles same customer may want to interact with the same over the course of the relationship. To remain relevant, a brand in different ways over the course of his or brand must be able to change what it is to the customer. It her relationship with that brand. Their relationship must embrace a state of non-permanence—and be able may deepen or shift—and the meaning of the brand to successfully fulfill different roles. will need to change if it is to remain relevant and engaging to that customer. The brand will have to This is not brand blasphemy. It is the reality of what fulfill a different role, because the meaning of what effective brands must evolve into. Different customers is exchanged between brand and customer has want to interact with the same brand in their own ways. changed. Consider Barry Kessel Barry is the CEO of RTC Relationship Marketing. He is also a husband and a father. These are just three roles he fulfills—shifting naturally from one to the next, often in the course of a single day. In each role, a different economy/exchange occurs (emotional, psychological, social, etc.). How Barry acts and communicates in his different roles—as well as the content, tone and manner of each interaction—is dictated by the relationship in question. How Barry interacts with his wife is certainly different from how he interacts with his children or his professional peers, and so on. Different relationships define different roles based on the meaning of what is exchanged in those relationships. The more effective Barry is in fulfilling his different roles, the more effective and beneficial his relationships will be. The flexibility and non-permanence any person embraces in fulfilling his or her different roles is not uncommon, abnormal or superhuman. It is simply a part of being a healthy, well-rounded, actualized person. Why should we expect anything different from the brands we create and manage? If anything, a healthy brand should imitate Barry. If a brand’s meaning is defined by what is exchanged between it and the customer, then its ability to effectively fulfill its role in a customer relationship will determine the long-term viability, relevance and power of that brand. next>new rules, a new system and greater potential The Death of Identity ©2009, Haydn Sweterlitsch 4
  5. 5. New rules, a new system and greater potential When fully realized and validated, Interactionist Branding and the Brand Role System make up a new and actionable approach to meaning management. The approach can be utilized to complement and optimize communications for an actualized, healthy and robust brand. Likewise, it can be employed in the creation (or re-ignition) of a brand. While the Brand Role System itself depends on paradigmatic roles (teacher, student, coach, etc.), it is a far more accessible and actionable system than existing archetypal systems of meaning management. This is because the roles of both brand and customer are defined by the meaning that arises from their interactions and relationship. Again, to manage the relationship’s interactions means 1) to ensure the defined role is fulfilled, and 2) to manage the meaning of a brand. Customers are not the passive audience they were when the rules were originally written. In point of fact, customers continue to be more actively engaged with brands on ever-shifting communications platforms with new rules of engagement written almost daily, often by the customers themselves. More customer interaction gives us more opportunities for success—along with more risks. The new system of meaning management introduced here synthesizes the best practices of brand advertising and CRM as never before, and provides a leading edge for more effective brand meaning management—even in the trickiest and most accelerated communications landscapes—so that brand/ customer relationships can be deeper and more sustained, loyal and mutually beneficial than ever before. 1 Blumer, Herbert. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method (1969). 2Wheeler, Alina.Designing Brand Identity, 2nd ed. (2006). The Death of Identity ©2009, Haydn Sweterlitsch 5