Identity is the low-hanging fruit

Virtue signaling as a brand building strategy

Ranjan here, talking about identity and marketing.

With no offense to my co-host Can, who was a Senior Software Engineer at Uber, I deleted the app a while back during the peak of #deleteuber. I then installed it again when visiting a city that didn't have Lyft. Hey, I tried.

Like so many others I bought into that temporary satisfaction of taking a moral stand in a corporate context via a social media campaign. It felt good. Scott Galloway captured the hypocrisy that surrounds Lyft’s moral high ground in the wake of their IPO:

Uber and Lyft are companies where 20,000 (mostly white, mostly college-educated, mostly male) employees and investors will sequester $150 billion in shareholder value from the 5 million (mostly non-white, mostly non-college grad) employees they’ve classified as “contractors.” Both firms have made noises about giving drivers equity. The operative term is “noise.” Lyft, to their credit, is giving drivers who have 10,000 rides $1,000 in cash to buy stock (a dime a ride) and $10,000 if they’ve logged 20,000 rides (50 cents a ride).

As the founders of Lyft pretend they are saving the planet while accidentally becoming billionaires, the roadshow/sermon is forced to relocate from SF to another city, as the entrance is blocked by protesters representing 98% of the firm’s workforce. The real talent that’s evolved over the last decade in the tech community is not mastery of technology, business models, or building cultures of creativity. Instead, tech’s genius is fostering the unfettered belief that they are “making the world a better place.”

When you get in the back of a car with an internal combustion engine, driven by one of 1.4 million drivers getting a dime as their share of the $20 billion-$30 billion value they’ve helped create, who don’t have health insurance or minimum wage protection, you can palliate your conscience, as the firm has purchased carbon offsets.

Numbers often speak louder than words. For all the talk about building community and driver empowerment, Lyft has perfected the art of Silicon Valley Doublespeak. “Empower” drivers while cutting benefits. Build a community while concentrating wealth creation. But I'm not spending this newsletter trying to judge Lyft executives or address questions of income inequality. I want to talk about how identity is a low-hanging fruit for brand marketing.


If you're trying to build a brand in an algorithmically ranked media world, you need to get your name out there. You can either build such an incredible product that everyone wants finds you (owned media), you can spend a lot of money on advertising (paid media) or you can get people talking about your brand (earned media).

image via titangrowth

That last part is the holy grail for marketers. It takes a lot of work and luck to create a truly differentiated product. It takes a lot of money to get people's attention with advertising. So what's the secret to getting people talking about you?


Nothing accelerates a social media post like when it allows people to express an element of their identity around it. We're all chimpanzees with lizard brains and the algorithms have been very well trained. This is true in all social media contexts, but it's the way brands work to play this game that’s worth keeping in mind.

Regarding identity, I want you to think about it in a signaling context rather than only the political or cultural. How does your alignment with a brand change the way you perceive and promote yourself? Does it make you feel better? Look better? It doesn’t even have to make you feel better as long as it makes you feel something.

If you're launching something new, before you could just go with "we’re making the world a better place" (here's the HBO Silicon Valley supercut). But that's tired. Now, brands are being forced to take a "real stand". They'll wade into political debates and support marginalized groups. The Harvard Business Review covered the topic in March 2018 with a feature on "CEO Activists".

I cannot know whether people are full of shit and I'd at least hope most of these "stands" align with existing political and moral leanings. But what I do know is Marc Benioff hailing new CRM features on the Salesforce platform does not get a lot of people talking. Homelessness in SF and anti-LGBT laws in Indiana do.

But that's an individual, and we all have a lot to say. What about those coordinated corporate identity efforts? The ones where hundreds, if not thousands, of people in an organization come together to promote a view, to take a stand.


Take Gillette. Back in January they evolved their iconic tagline from The Best a Man Can Get to The Best a Man Can Be. Their explanation:

It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man. With that in mind, we have spent the last few months taking a hard look at our past and coming communication and reflecting on the types of men and behaviors we want to celebrate. We’re inviting all men along this journey with us – to strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better.

From today on, we pledge to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette. In the ads we run, the images we publish to social media, the words we choose, and so much more.

Get ⇒ Be. That one word changed everything. Before it was the product being sold that made you better. Now the product isn’t even in the conversation, it’s the association with the brand itself. The push towards identity construction is right in front of us.

Things played out as they do.

James Woods said he'd boycott:

Chrissy Teigen swung back:

And the whole world was talking. The original ad has 30 million views on Youtube and we all talked about it. It worked, and even better for Gillette, it was cheap. They didn't have to pay an army of entry-level account execs to fire up Facebook ad dashboards. That part all came for free.

Identity is just more cost-effective. It allows the marketer to offload the heavy lifting of spreading their message to you. They just need to provide a canvas that’s just blank enough for you to assert your identity, but still controversial enough to make you want to engage.

…and then, as of yesterday:

Believe in somethingeven if it means sacrificing everything

Advertising has always worked by telling you that a company's products can help make you a better person. Nike shoes help you jump higher. Share a Coke asked you to...share a Coke. Google's Parisian Love made you (okay, me) cry about a search engine. Evoking emotion is part of the game, but in these campaigns the product was the star. Now it’s the brand itself.

And it makes sense. If you're devising a marketing strategy, you can conceive a campaign, produce the content, and go promote it. For that last part, you'll budget X dollars and be evaluated on how many people eventually engaged. Increasing the output efficiency of X is what you'll be talking about with your boss in your year-end review. You would be a fool to not pursue this path.

And the playbook is replicable. One could argue that you are assuming brand risk, but the key is to not take on an extreme position. When Nike brought on Kap, they knew least half the country would be on board, and probably analyzed it was a positive risk overall. Just enough controversy to get people talking, but a vague enough stance that won’t get stuck to a particular cause. Is anyone really willing to “sacrifice everything” when there are billions at stake? There's probably a PhD thesis waiting to be written on the Pareto Efficiency of controversy.


There's a a lot of problems in the world that could use some real leadership. But when your job is to sell widgets, it's really hard to make everything about selling more widgets. You can’t blame Gillette for replicating the playbook. It’s the best game in town.

In Winners Take All by Anand Giridhardas cuts into the idea of corporate proclamations of "doing good". His argument is simple: companies should first treat their workers well, build healthy workplace cultures, and pay their taxes. Once those are all in place, then maybe they can enter the arena of virtue signaling. To insert yourself into your consumer's identity beforehand is disingenuous at best, and a purposeful distraction at worst.

He also breaks down the fallacy of “win-win” which is very applicable here. On the surface, this seems like the ideal win-win: a brand both helps progress society while achieving efficient marketing spend. They “do well by doing good”. But the more micro-controversies we insert into our daily lives, the longer that persistent anger and discomfort lasts, and the worse things get. And then we all lose.

…I had to end this a bit dramatically :) Stay woke.

Related Reading:

Jonah Peretti, founder of Buzzfeed, wrote this bananas piece while at UC Santa Cruz in 1996. It partially reads as the foundation of what Buzzfeed would become, and it's a mind-bending connection between identity formation and capitalism.

Peretti is often credited with visionary status, and it’s almost eerie reading this. He manages to outline how the immediacy of online shopping, paired with rapidly targeted imagery allows the construction, de-construction and re-construction of your identity to make for the ultimate capitalist weapon…in 1996:

I assert that the increasingly rapid rate at which images are distributed and consumed in late capitalism necessitates a corresponding increase in the rate that individuals assume and shed identities. Because advertisements link identity with the need to purchase products, the acceleration of visual culture promotes the hyper-consumption associated with late capitalism.

In brand virtue signaling current events, last week saw a story about Patagonia no longer selling fleece vests to bankers. It was the perfect juice-chasing story, allowing us all to hate on douchebag bankers and the Midtown Uniform. But Om Malik noted the “half-truth” nature of the story:

Patagonia decided that it won’t be doing new wholesale-type deals with brands that don’t match their corporate value system. They want to reward a certain type of company committed to doing good for the planet with better deals and appropriate brand association. A clean tech company, I am sure, would certainly qualify. However, if you are a consumer tech company promoting consumerism, or a hedge fund looking to profit from greed — and you aren’t already a customer — Patagonia doesn’t want to lend you its brand, and it has no discounts for you.

But you could still easily buy their products at retail prices, work with others to get the logos on the vests and continue to wear it as your tech-startup uniform. In other words, you could get your uniform, just not at a discount through Patagonia’s corporate sales program.