Our words, thoughts, possessions are all modes of self-expression, all clues illuminating the labyrinthine plan of our identities. Everyone needs to express themselves because, without the means to communicate who we are, we have no way to convey to ourselves, and to others, that we’re relevant, alive!

Our need for self-expression can be satisfied even if no one receives our self-expressive message. We express our personality to others in the hope that they’ll notice, but also in part to satisfy our drive to communicate. Expression is a core process that helps us figure out who we are and who we hope to become.

The Need for Self-Expression

In a culture that values individuality and personality, what we choose to wear, to drive, even what we order at a restaurant, are potential opportunities to fulfill our need for self-expression and marketers must understand and find ways to fit their goods into this process.

While the most satisfying vehicle for expression is often the work of one’s career, we can’t deny the leading role that symbols in the marketplace play in our persistent need to express individuality. Company and brand logos are among the most recognizable symbols in public life. From Apple stickers to Wrangler jeans, we use hundreds of commercial symbols to give meaning to our identities. We associate the meanings of brands and their symbols with the owners of sympathetic personalities and identities, and voluntarily decide to populate our lives with select symbols.

Brand identity, then, is not just about generating public recognition of a company and its brands. It’s about what the symbol of the brand says about the individual who equips him or herself with it as a badge. The importance of symbols illuminates why marketing communication is not merely a game of pitching and selling, but something much larger and all encompassing.

Symbols Sell Lifestyles Emotionally

Marketers do not sell isolated items that may be interpreted as symbols; they sell pieces of a larger symbol – consumer lifestyle. Marketing is a process of providing customers with pieces of a mosaic from which they, as the creators of their own identity, pick and choose to develop the composition that for the time best appeals.

We express not just our temporal identity, but an evolving way of life. Of course, we are not the brands and products we use, but they offer a feeling of stability, an affirmation that we’re expressing who we want to be at that particular moment in our life.

Consider fashion’s role in self-expression. People dress in certain ways to help maintain a consistent identity and to affirm aspects of their personalities. Sometimes, part of expressing oneself through fashion is a means of fitting in with a group. Other times it’s used to stand out from the group. But, in most instances, fashion as self-expression is a way to boost one’s self-esteem.

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Brands Must Connect Emotionally

Whether it’s the labels we wear or the brands of cars we drive, our association with this personalized system of symbols is emotional. In other words, much of self-expression is done outside of our conscious awareness. The idea that possessions are extensions of our identities has long been discussed in psychology, but we must admit many business leaders pay but lip service to the notion that these symbols play a major role in our lives.

As a researcher, it is important to think about what aspects of personality are involved when the customer is considering a purchase. Looking at audiences this way, marketers can learn how to better satisfy the drive for self-expression for different personality dimensions. A business cannot reach any individual if there is no clear understanding of what a brand, product, or service symbolically represents. Some brands become iconic, defining a generation. The question is:  How are these symbols accepted, rejected or considered by their owner, the consumer?

Owning the emotional territory is a necessary objective on the path to a product becoming an iconic symbol. If each of our decisions is an act of self-expression, then it’s important that shoppers understand what a brand represents and how it might fit in with who they are and who they hope to become.