7 Things That Can Inform Your Identity as a Business or an Artist
If step one to starting a business is figuring out your purpose - your why - then identity comes next - the why you? But identity is one of those ethereal things that you can’t really slap a textbook definition on. When someone has a strong identity, you just know it when you see it. You can feel it permeating off the page or through the screen. It’s baked into everything that the artist or business does.
And, in our experience, whether we’re working on a client’s brand, our own business, or a creative endeavor outside of the 9-5, identity always comes into play, whether it’s subliminal or not.
In short, identity can be thought of as the sum of your distinguishing characteristics. But let’s not think in terms of demographics, or god forbid, identity politics. Sure, your race or gender or class play a role in defining who you are, but in our opinion, that’s not what people are most interested in. Instead (and especially if you're trying to do business), prospects are more interested in who you are beyond the demographic profile. Specifically, they’re scanning for clues that indicate your values, authenticity, potential, role, framing, personality and branding - all of the things that, in our opinion, make up a well-defined worldview. Because when two people share that worldview, it’s much easier to do business.
So let’s take a quick look at these defining aspects and help figure out, why you?
Values are typically the basis for one’s worldview. And expressing your values doesn’t have to mean grandstanding. Let’s get that right - you don’t need to shout. Subtlety is an art form in a sea of noise. So think about what you value in relation to business, art, or life in general. Start there. Take a look at the things that you’re passionate about, and figure out why.
Are you a photographer? Why do you take photos? Is it just something to do, or does it go deeper than that? Maybe you feel strongly about equality, and realized that a photo is the perfect canvas to capture someone’s true essence. Or maybe you value taking notice of the small, beautiful miracles around us every day. You think people get too caught up in the hustle and bustle, so photography is your way of slowing life down and helping others appreciate their humanity. Maybe you’re sickened by international warfare and imperialism, so you’re dedicated to becoming a conflict photojournalist to show people the images they might not otherwise want to see. These are all examples of values shining through in work.
Or, let’s say you want to be an interior designer. Aside from your natural talent, what values do you hold that have drawn you into this profession? Maybe you think that in order for people to feel truly happy and treat others with respect, they need to start inside their own home. In your experience, you find that people with the right Feng Shui at home are able to live fuller lives outside. Or, maybe you’ve seen firsthand how hoarding can destroy the lives of individuals and their loved ones. Or, perhaps you believe in sustainability and craftsmanship, and so you only want to design for people who can afford - and are willing to - hire responsible, independent contractors.
The possibilities here are endless. And you may have simply stumbled into a passion because it was available to you. That’s cool too. But it still can’t hurt to think, how do I define right from wrong? What lines am I willing to draw in the sand? What do I want to see more of in the world? What do I refuse to do? Or, even more powerfully, what will I ALWAYS fight for?
Now, if articulating your values constitutes ‘talking the talk,’ then being authentic in your art or business can simply mean ‘walking the walk.’ Of course, doing so is one of the most difficult challenges we all face, especially today. It’s easier than ever to make uninformed blanket statements or virtue signal. Everyone has a platform to say pretty much whatever they want. But do the words match the actions of the people behind the profile? That’s what most of us want to know - business prospects and art lovers alike.
So think, what does it mean to be authentic? After all, that’s the only way to create successful longevity online, right? Seth Godin is authentic. We’ve welcomed him into our inbox for almost a decade now, every single day. Why? Because everything that he says and does feeds into a shared worldview; that business and art should be tasteful, careful, and responsible; that we should all strive to be better, dance with fear and pick ourselves; and that we should apply our creativity in a way that is generous and unique.
Or look at a company like Everlane. They value transparency, and when we go to their site and see that they include photos of their factories, and have detailed pricing breakdowns as to why a certain article of clothing costs what it does, we perceive that as being authentic. They’re walking the walk. They’re showing, not just telling.
So, how can you be authentic in the way that you conduct your business or create your art? You can start by being confident in what you know, and being honest about what you don’t know. You can have the courage to fail, and own up to it proudly when you do, because at least you’re trying and improving. You can be steadfast in the way that you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to something. You can be resilient in the face of adversity. And, like Seth Godin, you can do it relentlessly for a decade and always stay true to your underlying purpose. That’s authenticity, and it’s what people crave online. So give it to them!
Okay, so you’ve thought about your values and how you can act in accordance with them. Where does that leave you in terms of potential? If you’re drawing a few lines in the sand, then there should now be a whole bunch of things that you aren’t going to do. You could think of your values and quest for authenticity as positive constraints, allowing you to follow a more defined path. This is a good thing.
So given those constraints, what is the potential change you could make? Don’t be afraid to start small and work your way up to bigger aspirations. How could your work change the way one person thinks or acts? If you’re a writing coach, and you inspire a single person to finish a novel and find their purpose in life, is that not success? What if you changed ten people? What if a year from now you have 1,000 followers? What if something you do goes viral and you’re an overnight sensation? Are you prepared for that kind of platform? For that level of scrutiny? For the responsibility of that kind of influence? You might think it’s ridiculous or lofty to even think about those things, but you just never know. And if these things do happen, you’ll be glad you thought about your potential and what you might do with it.
So ask, what is my potential today? In six months? In 5 years or 10? What is the smallest measure of success in my eyes? Conversely, what does absolute peak success look like to me? Your potential is everything, because where you aim is often where you’re headed.
Now, in order to have a shot at living up to your full potential, you might want to consider what role you would need to play in order to do so. And again, start small. If you were to help somebody one-on-one, what would that look like? Think about your first customer - your ideal, perfect dream client - what specifically would turn them on about you? What’s the greatest need you could address for them?
Let’s go back to the interior designer mentioned earlier. What is their role? Are they an organizer to help people declutter their life and focus more? Are they a peacemaker, transforming chaotic homes into peaceful zen gardens where love and creativity can flourish? Are they a romantic, helping people see the beauty in traditional designs and detailed craftsmanship? Are they an executive’s secret weapon, helping clients transform their home into a posh retreat that will allow them to hold persuasive dinner parties and expand their network?
Thinking about your role will help you figure out the problem you’re really solving (revisit the milkshake example for more on the subject). Determining and assuming your role will also feed directly into product-market fit, helping you find out if the need you're addressing actually exists on a large enough scale to become a profitable market.
Finally, remember that right now you’re just making assumptions. As you learn and grow and create, you may find your role shifting constantly, or find yourself taking on multiple roles for different people or different customer segments. And that’s a positive thing too, as long as you’re staying true your values, being authentic, and always pursuing your full potential.
Next, what is the context of your role in the bigger picture? If you’re a musician, or a writer, or a real estate agent, what does your industry look like right now? Things move quickly - quicker than ever, in fact. There are new developments happening in your industry every day, and it’s your job to keep up. If you’re going to be successful business owner or artist, you need to be familiar with the context of your creations so that you might be able to make them stand out. Learn about your industry! And get familiar with the other industries that affect your own.
If you’re that musician, it’s not enough to simply practice and create - not if you want to earn a living. You also need to learn what people are listening to. You need to know what’s happening with artist’s rights, copyright laws, piracy, online sharing, potential blockchain payment solutions, local venues, radio stations, record labels, equipment, philosophy - all while learning and perfecting your craft. It can be overwhelming, but no one ever said being an artist or starting a business was easy. It’s not. That’s why most people don’t do it.
Your values, authenticity, potential, and role in the larger context of your industry & competition will all feed into how you frame your offer. The frame will give you boundaries, which you'll need if you’re ever going to find a niche. A frame says, “Here’s where our lines are. We’re going to control exactly what goes on within these lines, in the most effective ways that we can control them. We’re going to do it this way, because we want to promote [this], and we don’t have time for [that].
A frame is powerful, because it shows others where to look, and how to look at you. And if someone doesn’t like what’s in your frame, they can always move on. At least you’ll both know where you stand.
You might consider personality as what happens inside of that frame. If you think of your art or business as a painting, then your personality might be the types of brushstrokes you use, or the shapes, or the material. Is your painting loud and chaotic, or is it a microscopic dot in the center of a giant blank canvas? What message are you trying to send? How do you want to make people feel? What do you want them to think?
Personality could also simply be the words that you use. For example, Ash Ambirge, someone we look up to in the copywriting world, has a very unique personality. She’s not like anyone else, and people love her for it. She’s strong, bold, empowering, and unconventional. She’s never stuffy. She uses words like “Unfuckwithable.” And she’s always keeping it real and candid, which helps her readers let their guard down a bit so real progress can ensue. Oftentimes, people assume that starting a business is out of their reach, thinking “Oh, I could never do that.” And if Ash needs to drop an F-bomb or a hilarious, profound anecdote to get you to loosen up, she’s more than willing to do so. Her personality has attracted thousands and thousands of loyal fans who will keep coming back for more. How might you start to do the same?
If your personality isn’t informed by your values, authenticity, and potential, along with your role in the world and the frame with which you see it - then it’s more of an act. And people will see through that eventually, if not immediately.
Finally, let’s touch on branding, the last component in creating a strong identity. Branding is really about first impressions. Whether it’s your website, your marketing materials, your cover art, your portfolio, your blog - it’s all a part of your branding, and you might only get three seconds of someone’s time to make an impression. So it helps if your brand is on point (easier said than done).
What does that mean? Well, how can you start putting all of these elements into a cohesive look, message, and feel? What types of imagery, colors, fonts, styles and words would suit your personality?
Let’s look at that interior designer one last time. So they’ve decided that because they value craftsmanship and attention to detail, they want to be the romantic, high-end option for people who hate cookie cutter designs (anything “out-of-the-box” makes them cringe). So what might their site look like?
- It should have a high attention to detail, just like the work this designer is looking to create
- It should probably have a vintage feel, but also look modern and upscale
- It better have a webpage or a blog post about why craftsmanship matters
- It should probably outline why small, independent contractors are the only way to ensure quality
- It should have some examples of both good and bad designs to give readers context and show them what to look for
- It might want to talk about certain materials, companies, or products that meet these high standards
- The colors and fonts will have to be spot on, as they can be a game-changer
- The words should probably be romantic to match the romanticism and beauty of someone who dedicates their life to a trade like carpentry
- Etc., etc., etc.
We could go on. The point is, once you’ve fleshed out all of the different variables that go into identity, you can find ways to build a brand around them.
And whether you’re an artist, a small business owner or both, building a brand around a strong identity is the quickest way to not look and sound like everyone else.