The Five Layers of Identity

LayersOfIdentity

Identities are complicated, slippery things. Getting to know someone well takes time and effort. When you first meet someone new, you ask a lot of questions to understand who they are and how you should relate to them. Social context also provides many cues for us as individuals. As relationships deepen, the nuance of individual personalities becomes revealed to us as we probe deeper, and also create shared experiences with others.

Since the onset of social media, marketing has become increasingly similar to the process of building personal relationships. Marketers must work to build a long-term relationship with consumers, one that offers consumers the right level of intimacy for the known identity of the customer. Knowing too little about the consumer’s identity will result in wasted effort and misguided messages. Knowing too much will alienate your audience.

Therefore, understanding the layers of identity is critical to creating a marketing strategy that will resonate with your customer. Identity can be broken down in several ways. Let’s look at each one individually.

What You Are

“What You Are” includes observable characteristics, like height and eye color. It also includes demographic information, like where you live, how much money you make, and how many people live in your house with you.

This layer of identity is readily observable and generally available. We fill out forms with this information all the time – at the doctor’s office, grocery store, and many websites. Much of this information can be gathered just by looking at someone.

This is also typically the kind of information that you must use with care. As your mother said, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Identity information about What You Are may be a directional indicator, but does not guarantee that messages will connect with a customer. That would be like expecting every person who is the same age as you to be your friend. There are deeper layers of identity that tell much more about who someone really is.

What Actions You Take

Actions are the things that you do, and the actions you take are the next layer of identity. Actions more accurately reflect who you are because they are instigated and directed by the individual. You decide what you are going to eat, based on the foods you like and dislike. Actions are a core component of identity because no one else can decide your actions for you.

Many individual actions are caused by your true identity. You care about your health, so you go to the gym three times a week. You carpool with coworkers because you want to get to work faster and you care about the environment. The motivation for a specific action is rooted in who you are as a person.

Therefore it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get consumers to take action for something that is not congruent with their identity. Marketers do best when they offer consumers the opportunity to take action in ways that reinforce the consumer’s identity. While it’s true that we can distract people, and momentarily reduce their willpower, this tactic won’t create lasting value for the consumer or the brand.

Actions also shape your identity. When you do something that you enjoy (like completing a scrapbook), the action is turned into a memory that reinforces a specific identity that you have about yourself (“I am artistic”). This can work for both positive and negative actions, which makes it a powerful reinforcement tool. Each time a consumer smokes a cigarette, they are reminded that they are “a smoker.” This identity based on actions ties them to all the other smokers.

Action-based identities are easy to spot; they usually end in “-er” (scrapbooker, smoker, baseball player). Actions also influence reputation scores, like your Klout Score, your credit score, or your Airbnb score. But, actions can be driven by very different motivations, and motivations are the next layer of identity.

What You Care About

Actions are borne out of the things you care about. Most of the time, you do things you care about (like reading your child a bedtime story), and you don’t do things you don’t care about (like researching the subvocalization patterns of Kenyan children, or flossing). What you care about drives what actions you take, so it is a deeper, more significant part of identity.

Understanding and driving what consumers care about is important for marketers to be successful. Some brands, like State Farm, tap into our cares about protecting our family – their motto, “State Farm is there,” reminds us that the company helps us protect our families and loved ones. Walmart tells us we should shop with them if we care about saving money and living better.

But, just because actions define identity doesn’t mean that two consumers who take the same action care about the same thing. When two consumers receive a coupon for diapers, one might redeem the coupon because she cares about giving her baby the highest quality product; while the other might redeem the coupon because she cares about getting the lowest possible price, while ensuring basic protection for her baby. Same action, different concerns.

Marketers must understand what the consumer cares about to drive action.

What You Believe In

The next layer of identity is based on your beliefs. With beliefs, we start to see a very fundamental level of identity that is almost unchanged throughout our lives. What you believe in is formed by the cultural institutions that you participate in, and the narrative that you tell yourself about your own life.

To understand how beliefs impact identity, consider two babies, one born in New York City and the other in rural Pakistan. In their first year of life, there is not much difference in their experience. They are fed and cared for.

But, as they get older, they speak different languages, take different courses in school, are exposed to different religions, and are subject to different laws. Their parents have different work histories, and their homes are different – one packed in a dense city, the other a farm full of animals.

You can see how these two individuals, who start off similar in many ways, come to have different beliefs based on their circumstances and life experiences.

You get some understanding of an individual’s beliefs when you review what public institutions they are affiliated with, where they make charitable donations, and what type of volunteer activities they do. Magazine and newspaper subscriptions are also good indicators of what consumers believe, as they reinforce identity.

What Your Values Are

At the core of identity is the notion of values. Your values are built and reinforced by all of the other layers of identity, and they drive your actions and decisions, consciously or unconsciously.

When a consumer tweets every two minutes, they could be expressing that they value connecting with other people, or they could be expressing that they value being the center of attention. Metrics are not enough to understand values; marketers must interpret the data to understand the driver of identity.

As marketers look deeper into the five layers of identity, a richer, more meaningful set of marketing tactics becomes apparent. Driving conversions must rely on connecting with deep layers of identity to drive desired actions.