What is a company’s identity?
Big corporations usually have several brands so when they think about identity they often think of brand identity. These types of corporations often obsess over shareholder value and have a Wall Street centered vision of growth , which corrupts them and leads to their leaders loosing their purpose. Their mission is just a statement written on a wall and the way they build their brand identity is mostly by searching for attributes, which will bring more sales.
Startups, on the other hand know very well the reasons they exist . They don’t own multiple brands so their identity is much closer to their mission, ethos, values and culture. This is a great advantage but young companies tend not to focus much on their identity. When things are fresh and the team is not large identity doesn’t seem like an important thing to define. As a result decisions become difficult to make and internally the company’s culture becomes unclear. As a result clients feel a lack of coherence, which with time transforms into distrust. This is dangerous as a client’s trust is a startups main asset.
Here I will discuss some tools that will help you uncover the basic elements of your startups identity. What your main archetypes are, what your attributes as a company and team are and what features, benefits and experiences you provide to your customers. As well as when you achieve success, what elements of your organization drive the identification on your customers. Finally, I will discuss what stage of the technology adoption cycle your products are in and what the archetypes for your customers are in each stage of your products evolution.
A company’s identity is an element that goes from being the very roots of a project to serving as the beacon that guides its strategy. From inspiring the company’s communication to being a compass that navigates the way the team organizes and operates. 
Tools and elements of your identity
Your products offerings
One of the most useful tools that will help you define your startups identity is the one that informs your organization about what you are offering your customers. Not just superficially, but what you are really offering them.
There has been a great evolution in how the market works in the last 100 years, and the balance of power that used to be on the producer’s side (the business) is now on the people’s side (consumers). Today clients are people, they have stopped being buyers and turned into humans, that is how they see themselves. It is how they analyze things and purchase, and it’s how they expect to be treated.
We can clearly recognize a swift change in the focus of these different paradigms, a change in the subject that will define who you are as a company. Of course you can still say who and how you are, but it’s what they say (clients) that draws the real picture of you.
This tells us that products and services have different layers and that it is your responsibility to understand what your products mean at every level. Lets do this step by step:
This graphic shows where the focus is in each stage:
Everybody understands this one. In fact, it’s a classic mistake to focus on your product’s features and try and communicate its functionality treating people as individuals that act in rational and deterministic way, only to find out that things are not that obvious. Overcoming features is hard because here you are still talking about you, your product and your company, but as soon as you reach the next step, benefits, you will be talking about your clients, and that “leap of empathy” doesn’t come easy.
The perspective focused on features worked when production was scarce, products undifferentiated, and basic needs where covered (low in Maslow’s model). A car was a machine built to move people, cloths kept people warm, and products for cleaning where just that. Production power first and distribution later is what gave real advantage back in the day. This is not the case anymore.
For Smoobility, one of our features is giving people access to documents on their mobile devices without Internet connection. For a firm like Ducati, a motorbike producer, one of their features is traction control.
Features must connect to something. That something corresponds to people’s needs and how your product will benefit them. Benefits are closely connected with culture and you can test them by asking yourself if they are relevant in today’s people ecosystem. You can see them from the client’s perspective by using the phrase “I need (your benefit here)”. If it makes sense you’re on the right path.
When we thought about peoples needs in Smoobility by introducing the capacity to access your documents offline from mobile devices, we considered things like: “saving time”, “being productive” or “empowering creativity”. So “I need to save time”, or “I need to be productive”. Ducati clients considering traction control they would say, “I need to ride safely”.
When your product serves people, how does that make them feel? What emotions arise? What desires are fulfilled? Your product, your communication, your style must trigger deep feelings that make people choose you and not others firms. What is that?
Products that create experiences also create meaning. If your clients can say, “I want (your experience here)”, then it’s good.
In Smoobility we think that great technology that serves people in a seamless way makes people feel like something magical is happening. Our clients are intelligent and well-educated people, but sometimes technology makes them feel stupid and clumsy. We want them to feel smart, creative, powerful and in control. It was also important for Smoobility to create a product that would make people feel relived and confident, always sure they can access their digital content. Here we considered our clients saying, “I want to be creative or I want to feel secure”. Ducati would say their clients experience is passion for motor sports, they feel they’re on the edge of technical innovation. They feel they own something unique, artisanal, distinct and radical, for a moment they live the racing dream, so they would say “I want to be a racer”, “I want a machine that’s unique”.
Identification is the emotional connection that leads to loyalty. If your clients think your product is smart or that your solution is creative, they take the step to recommend you because they want to own those elements as well. Identification comes with time and success. It is important not to loose sight of this, many companies have failed by eroding these element.
I would like to point out a controversial example here, Porsche, an ex-sports car manufacturer. They have created sports cars since the first half of the XX century, but in 2006 they released the Cayenne, an off-road car. This seemed like a smart move when the cross-country market was growing fast, and certainly Porsche made a great car that sold very well and returned great profits, but in the long run Porsche became less of a sports car company. If you want a sports car today, if your want a car that makes your think of youth, power, technology, adventure, wildness, you might want to go for something else…otherwise you might fall in the rich wife – family man – gray hair – non coupé category… and you don’t want that!
Product’s and client’s archetypes
Now lets talk about your product’s and your client’s archetypes.
For starters you must consider the technology adoption life cycle curve. This is the most neglected instrument when it comes to communicating products. Young innovative firms often tend to make the mistake of copying highly abstract forms of communication from mature companies that only play well in mature markets.
Instead of falling into that trap you must think about every stage of the lifecycle and consider what products and features you will be introducing and who your clients are. With this you can create a communication strategy that builds on your identity, verify that it is coherent and understand who your clients are and what you are offering.
When we thought about our first users in Smoobility, we defined the archetypes they would fit in. These were people willing to adopt new technology, curious and eager to experiment and discover. They would also have to be those who got the most value from a tool like ours, knowledge workers as well as creative and intellectual individuals.
These are the archetypes we defined: “the visionary”, “the athlete” and “the artist”. As we progress in the adoption cycle our users archetypes will shift to: “the scientist”, “the sage”, “the athlete” and “the artist”. Of course it’s vital to understand these archetypes, what they mean and their pros and cons. We wont analyze every archetype, but as a brief example let’s consider the athlete: “he has strength and power, discipline, tenacity and is achievement oriented. The athlete is relentless in the pursuit of his goal. His challenges as an archetype are to overcome his temptation to cheat and use his power to bully or hurt his opponents. The athlete is also a model for challenging conventional wisdom, for aspiring to the highest potentials, for achieving visions of perfection and performance and for the exploitation of power”
Now lets look at how your products fit here. Our first product is a simple but powerful tool that lets users access documents corresponding to their last 3 days of work on their mobile devices, instantly and without Internet connection. This product is an assistant, “the servant”. It is also about technology, so we became “the engineer”, empowering our clients creativity and productivity, therefore becoming “the muse”.
With the next product we’ll be introducing an organizational tool. So to the previous archetypes we will add “the liberator”, “the rescuer”, as our product aims to free people from the hassles that come with technology. They will be able to organize their digital content in their own way and share that organization throughout all their devices.
With all these archetypes in mind it’s easier to create a list describing your main attributes: servant, functional, seamless, unnoticed but once discovered indispensable. Smoobility is feminine; it is caring, easy, human and intuitive. If cyborgs means cybernetic organism, Smoobility is a humanoid application.
How Identity guides actions and decisions
Your attributes make you who you are and should show in all your actions. Every word, emotion and feeling you trigger in people should have these attributes. Here are some basic ways to connect your attributes to the outside world:
Does your brand talk about its attributes? Are your colors truthful to your personality? Does your smell (if you have one), your sound and your fonts match your essence?
In Smoobility, we created a palate of colors  that represent our basic traits and character. We chose fonts and a logo that strongly relate with the archetypes that represent our company, you can check them out in www.smoobility.com .
What symbols and metaphors configure your speech? What heroes, public personalities or mythological characters do you identify with as a company?
Apple famously presented itself as David against Goliath in 1984, Goliath being Microsoft. In Smoobility, we have our own particular model: the butler that like Alfred Pennyworth (Batman’s butler) plays a fundamental role in the heroes life (our client), but passes unnoticed, he is the real canon for Smoobility!
Internally is your team organized respecting your values? Does every member of your organization know what you stand for? What about your relations with your providers and most importantly with your clients?
For us good customer support and really listening to our customers is fundamental, as well as the interaction between human and machine. We never do technology for the sake of it, but always with a strong purpose and only if it can easily serve people to be more creative and efficient.
As a conclusion, I would say that a startup’s identity is much more than brand identity. A startup’s identity is a systemic element that guides your strategy in a spiritual way. It synchronizes your team and it respects your company’s mission and vision.
People’s actions as consumers are more and more determined by emotions and ultimately a spiritual connection with a product or company. This spiritual connection is what makes a perfect relation between you and your clients. As Simon Sinek put it, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy what you believe”. Show them what you believe.
Some books that can give you great insights on these matters:
- The Brand Gap, by Marti Neumeier
- Emotional Branding, by Marc Gobe
- Marketing 3.0, by Hermajan Kartajaya, P. Kotler and Iwa Setiawan
- Archetypes in Branding, by Margaret Heartwell
- The Book of Symbols, by Archive for Research and others.
- Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore.
- http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html 
  Jack Welch famously said: “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world”.
  I won’t be analyzing what purpose is, but I will mention it because identity and purpose (along with the mission and the vision) deeply influence each other.
  Purpose is the first motivation behind any project. It influences the mission and vision and all three components interacting with the market and products give birth to identity.