Image and Identity

About a year ago I had a dream in which I saw many copies of a brand new book, a glossy yellow paperback, neatly packed in boxes. The title was Image and Identity – at least I think it was – this was only a dream, after all. I do remember that in the dream I was rather excited by the book, and wanted to get hold of a copy to read. But I don’t believe I did.

Since then, I’ve been very intrigued by this title. Perhaps it’s a book I need to write. (And if there is a real book with this name, I’m not sure I want to know about it.) It seems to raise a lot of thoughts about my thirty years working on advertising and brands, and my more recent work as a consultant with a growing focus on organisations and cultures.

Image and Identity. They’re both words we see all over the place, often in a marketing context: my local Frome paper has a headline ‘Experts called in to Improve Town’s Image’, while in my study I notice an internal document from a client I worked with last year headed ‘Our Identity’. Put the word ‘brand’ in front of either word and they may even seem interchangeable. Yet in practice, and in their origins, the words are also quite distinct, though it becomes harder to pin down just what the differences are.

An image (like the Latin word, imago) is a picture or likeness – something that’s therefore not solid, not real. (Imago can also signify a ghost.) Since its use in the phrase ‘brand image’ began in the nineteen-fifties, it’s accordingly carried an air of illusion about it, of smoke and mirrors, the Celtic ‘Glamour’ that deceived unwary travellers and lured them into fairyland. Maybe that’s why it’s a bit out of fashion in modern marketing speak, though not in popular usage.

Identity on the other hand is about certainty and proof. An identity card shows who you ‘really’ are – though it’s no coincidence that the hero of Mad Men, Don Draper, is revealed to be ‘really’ someone else, an army deserter living under a false identity, an abused child from a dirt poor family reinventing himself as a figure of power and envy. Identity is also something we can invent, and according to Anthony Giddens, all of us living in late modern society are compelled to invent our identities continually through the choices that we make. Identity may seem a more solid concept than image, but maybe that too is an illusion.

Behind these thoughts lies a bigger question about the way we think of brands, or indeed the way we think of ‘the self’: where, if anywhere, lies the reality or the authenticity behind the mask? Remembering that even our word personality comes from the Latin persona, a stylised mask used in the Roman theatre. Even Erving Goffmann, who enriched our thinking about human behaviour with the idea that all human interactions are a kind of performance, concludes somewhere that there is ultimately no ‘backstage area’ where we can finally stop acting and ‘be ourselves’. Perhaps there’s a deeper truth hidden in the hackneyed image of the ‘brand onion’, which I’ve often been critical of. Because if you peel away the layers of an onion, one by one, you’re not left with the core or essence of the onion – you’re left with nothing. Except the smell on your fingers.

And why is all this interesting to me right now? Because I’ve finally made the attempt to set out my stall in a website, and (although I said I’d never do it) started this blog. And I’m bang up against these questions which I believe, acknowledged or not, confront any brand or organisation or indeed any individual – How do I present myself to the world? Who do I want to be? And who do I think I am, really?

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