Identity: The Core of Community

Franco Varriano
    
July 6, 2021
   .   
7
 min read

We started the Creative Layer blog with a particular goal in mind.

Our aim was to share our experience, operator-level insights, and perspectives on some of the most important aspects of how the internet is impacting the way modern businesses are being built and reaching scale—whether you're a creator, an entrepreneur, or an established brand.

Past posts have explored the transition to an audience-first future, the value of tight-knit communities that resemble cults, the promise of what future business models might hold, and many more opportunities and findings.

While some of these posts referenced or implied the concept of identity, we didn't dive into the topic. So here we are!

Identity is at the core of what makes us human: how we see ourselves and, as an extension, which environments we seek—or create—to match that perceived or desired identity.

The internet has enabled us to scale our identities in unprecedented ways. In fact, it's given us the ability to manage multiple identities and even blend them in new ways.

A simple example is how many millennials use Facebook for personal connections and LinkedIn for professional ones. Or how younger demographics might occupy multiple Instagram accounts, each to express a specific interest or to connect with a different community of friends and followers.

But what does identity have to do with marketing, building a community, or running a business? Understanding these elements matters more than ever before.


What is identity?

Before getting ahead of ourselves, let's start by defining what we mean by identity.


i·den·ti·ty (n)

/ˌīˈden(t)ədē/

1. The fact of being who or what a person or thing is.

2. A close similarity or affinity.


Identity is more than your name, what you look like, or the social apps you use.

It's a culmination of many elements, including:

  • The communities you belong to;
  • The products you buy and the brands or creators you support through those actions;
  • The recognition and status directed to you by your peers;
  • Your unique knowledge or experiences;
  • And so much more.

In a paradoxical twist (sometimes referred to as the cult paradox), many studies have found that identity isn't only formed at an individual level, but as part of a community or group.

Doug Clinton, Managing Partner at Loup Ventures, writes:

Identity creates a paradox that represents the intersection of individuality and conformity. It is the tension between individuality and conformity that demands persistent action by the individual to reaffirm both their uniqueness and alliance. Both uniqueness and alliance require the presence of others. Uniqueness must be relative to someone else, and alliance must be with someone else. Identity is both how we see ourselves and how others see us, even if those two don’t always match. 

Many of the best brands have found a way to leverage this tension. For example, you may feel like owning an Apple product has made you (or made you appear) more creative and less "corporate-y." Both the purchase and belonging to the Apple community reinforce that identity.

Your identity is ever evolving, however the pace at which that change happens is totally up to you. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits links the two:

In fact, the word identity was originally derived from the Latin words essentitas, which means being, and identidum, which means repeatedly. Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness.”

Now that we better understand some of the basics of identity, what does this mean for your business?


The importance of identity for creators and entrepreneurs

It wasn’t so long ago that identity was primarily tied to the physical world. That's increasingly no longer the case.

In the past, a brand mark was physically applied to a product (or property) to guarantee quality and origin to prospective customers and within the community of existing customers.

Over time, that brand mark evolved into the modern logo, but continued to signal quality, authenticity, status, and identity. Buying Apple signals you're creative. Buying Nike signals you're athletic. Buying Louis Vuitton signals you're rich (we've written about signalling theory here).

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs and creators have purposely set out to build a company based not only on an individual sense of aspirational identity, but that also bears a broader perceived value from a community (of both consumers and non-consumers).

Web Smith, founder of 2pm, wrote about a key example of this. Here’s an excerpt from his in-depth article on Ralph Lauren's rapid rise, noting a key strategy:


By focusing on a lifestyle preference and not a demographic, the business expanded into women’s, active wear, sportswear, home accessories, and luxury. By 1983, Ralph Lauren was an empire. And it’s because the brand identity was built around a shared idea of perceived class and the style that communicated that class. He made it accessible to some and the norm for others.

More recently, digitally native founders and businesses have looked towards the HENRY & CARLY psychographic profiles (read more on those here) to generate similar desire and shared status around their products.

Doctor of sociology and experienced marketing executive Ana Andjelic wrote about this very phenomenon in her book The Business of Aspiration, noting:

"Modern brands are innovative because they combine the aesthetic experience, identity building, and social display." 


What’s next?

These concepts are now being taken a step further and are increasingly tied to a distributed, digital world.

As we’ve seen, identity—aspirational or not—is directly connected with status. Eugene Wei wrote an excellent “Status as a Service (SaaS)” post about these dynamics. Many of the concepts he explores around social capital are directly applicable not only to some of the most popular apps today, but also many of the niche communities the internet and digital worlds enable.

Belonging to (or buying into) a community like cryptocurrencies or non-fungible token (NFT) projects can signal identities like: early adopter, tastemaker, subculture, insider knowledge, a secret club membership, and more.

In these digital worlds, members of these groups develop a special bond with one another based on their shared identity.

But rather than being passive consumers of mass market products or experiences, there's a return to the do-it-yourself, tweaking mentality of a bygone age that centers more on craftsmanship. Except now, thanks to technology, this co-creation is more collaborative and in-depth.


"The keyword here is not necessarily prestige and exclusivity, but identity and belonging. There's a pure pleasure in the intimacy of consuming together, along with enjoying status within a community."  - Ana Andjelic, The Business of Aspiration


A recent article on the topic of the Creator Economy and Gaming illustrates Ana’s point:

Traditionally, most forms of entertainment ask us to passively consume: We binge a Netflix show; we watch a concert. But in gaming, the way audiences actively engage with entertainment — and even embody it — is changing. In experiences like Roblox, The Sandbox, and Rec Room, the point of the game is to make a game. User-generated content isn’t simply a new way of playing — it’s an increasingly viable method of monetization, a form of identity, and a social connector.

Technology introduces more options for anyone to create, co-create, and remix—faster than ever before. Now that we're becoming more familiar with these tools and seeing them spread to several industries and contexts, the next wave is to leverage the identity of each individual in that process.

In a previous post titled "The Four Generations of Personalized Experiences," we wrote:

Empowering everyday people to use the very elements of their identity, as simple Lego-like blocks, to explore their own creative ideas and generate entirely new product lines or businesses is incredibly exciting!

As we spend more time curating, building, and shaping our identities and the experiences that reflect and reinforce them, we'll want and need simple access to these Lego-like blocks. Only then will we be able to truly create by ourselves and with others. 

Here’s our prediction: the entrepreneurs and creators who empower their audiences and communities with the tools to create, co-create, and remix products and experiences that reflect their identities (or aspirational identities), will be among the fastest growing businesses we've ever seen.

This is the focus of Creative Layer—sign up for early access today!