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Artifacts: Brands, Business, and Boundaries: A World in Identity Crisis

By Mike Fox

When our job, family, political and personal identities collapsed on themselves, we had to be all that we are together — still many different things, but understood and valued collectively. And we expect companies and their brands to do the same.


The world is having an identity crisis. Finding who we are in the wake of change isn’t a new dilemma, but in the upheaval of profound global events, we’re not facing a recovery as much as it is a reckoning. A reckoning from our climate, our civil liberties, our history, our jobs — ourselves. Why does it feel like it’s happening all at once? Probably because it is. Overwhelming events often breed perspective. People are reevaluating priorities, roles, and even relationships with greater vigilance. 

The labor force is an indicator of this assessment. Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M, coined the term “The Great Resignation,” to describe the significant exodus of people from their workplaces. The large-scale resignation is due, in part, to a fundamental change in the employee-employer relationship. In our previous Artifacts Report, we discussed the importance of being a trusted narrator for your audience. There’s power in being a voice that speaks truthfully to what we’re going through. In the spring of this year, Edelman’s trust report showed that the most trusted institution has shifted to “My employer.” What happens if the employer fails in this role? If they can’t resonate with the experiences of their employees or the values guiding their decisions? The Great Resignation.

If 2020 revealed anything, it’s that traditional relationships have expanded, morphed, evolved or even disappeared. Gone are the days of simple associations where identities are rubber-stamped and compartmentalized based on what we do and where we are. The last 18 months collapsed our identities upon themselves. Suddenly, and jarringly, the many things that we are toppled onto each other and forced us to be all of those things at once.


When you force the roles you play into one room together, the truth comes out. Aligning who we are and what we value with what’s expected of us clarified compatibility in our relationships.


And that yielded the age-old make-or-break question: if we’re not compatible, why are we together? A reckoning, indeed. 


People are reconciling this with their employer. Compatibility used to be within the boundary of the workplace and mostly decided by compensation and benefits, but as workers experienced the lines blurring between job, family, politics, citizenry, even spirituality and stewardship of the planet we live on, the boundaries changed. People became disinterested in going back to normal or returning to traditional roles.


That played out in many forms, like those who became full-time parents (the burden of which we saw unfairly placed primarily on women), moved to a new company, changed careers, started a business, or even elected early retirement. Today, compensation and benefits are simple table stakes to our relationships with employers. What else should employers be to us — to the world? Can they be it? Can they afford not to? 


With so many outside variables integrating themselves into our place of work, the negotiation of “work-life balance” is antiquated, particularly when “place of work” is in itself ambiguous.

In today’s hyper-connected world, the new expectation is harmony. When our identities collided during the many months of stay-at-home orders, we had to be all that we are together — still many different things, but understood and valued collectively. And we expect companies and their brands to do the same.


We often embark on client relationships with the acknowledgement that branding cannot be done in a vacuum. Your brand must align to the activities and goals of your business. When they operate independent of each other, consumers will call it out or dismiss you altogether. This is why we build client’s a brand core, a tool that grounds every decision we make from a brand perspective in what’s true to the organization’s purpose, mission, and commitment. It helps to ensure their brand is in harmony with the many operating facets of an organization. This harmony is bigger than sound messaging, or team alignment, or “synergy” — it’s truth. If you can hold on to that, it’s much easier to manage all the things that you are. And as we look ahead, that isn’t the goal, it’s the expectation.


If consumers can’t segment their many identities and relationships, neither can organizations. Understanding and resonating with the people you serve extends beyond products and services. A brand’s position must be clearly articulated in the marketplace, but so does their position on the environment and their corporate and social responsibility. Many companies are even evaluating this in how they organize their leadership. Once a nice-to-have on the About Us page is now fundamental to the operations and reputation of a business. Compatibility with customers and consumers, much like with employees, is facing a reckoning. Show them why you should be together. 


All great brands understand relationships fail the moment their consumers view it as transactional. Deeper, longer-lasting consumer relationships are cultivated by the same ingredients, transcendent of identity. Trust, authenticity, and a commitment to shared values survives upheaval and maintains truth.


In our global identity crisis, we’re not seeking to restore the balance of things. There’s no going back. What we want — what we expect — is harmony.

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