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« Defining the Brand, Part 2 | Main | Defining the Brand, Part 1 »

The Paradox of People

Image © Ben Weis

I don’t really mind my commute.

As a passenger in a two-person carpool, I get to look out the window at the scenery of D.C.—how many people get that look at the Lincoln and Washington monuments heading in every day?— and spend a few extra minutes with my driver-husband while he maneuvers the city streets and terrible drivers from Maryland. (Sorry, local jab.)

This Wednesday, it gave me the opportunity to see something that reminds me why the work I do will always fascinate me: the paradox of people.

Looking out across the bridges and iced-over Potomac while traffic moved at similarly glacial pace, I noticed a car to the side, a hybrid, with many stickers announcing the driver’s point of view: the “Coexist” one made of religious symbols, a rainbow for the Human Rights Campaign, Obama 2012, Friends of The National Zoo, locally known as FONZ, and similar ones with an environmental or humanitarian bent.

And then, we moved forward slightly and I could see the driver through the car’s open window, a young woman with curly hair who seemed to be singing along to music I couldn’t hear. And smoking.

So here was a person prominently promoting her support for open-mindedness, helping animals, tolerance and related sensibilities, while engaging in a behavior that’s known to be harmful to the smoker and those around them, as well as the environment, and is the root cause of expensive public health problems.

Maybe she was just smoking that morning to wake up or maybe she borrowed her friend’s car. I have no judgment of her beliefs or actions to render, but for an observer without any context, it was a wonderful living example of the people paradox: we are not always what we seem.

Every day, I’m trying to figure this out. Our entire mindset as brand designers is centered on people and what they think, feel and do. Agencies and scientists and consultants try constantly to figure that dynamic out, exploring and attempting to explain the way that our crocodile brains (a favorite Mario Batali expression of mine) make us act unconsciously even as our egos drive us to decisions that serve our sense of self-worth, affiliation or status.

Are there a lot of possible answers and theories? Absolutely. And we draw on them as we continue to make our own explorations that attempt to uncover what others might have missed or to make connections that explain differently so that we can create brand experiences and offerings with our clients that deeply resonate with the smoking humanitarian or the poetry-slamming rugby forward. Moving past basic assumptions about gender, race or age, capturing the contradictions and trying to get why they’re happening is how breakthroughs happen.

When you figure it out, let me know. I’ll do the same, but in the meantime, I’m going to keep reminding myself that there is no limit to how much we can contradict who we seem to be. All we can assume is that there are at least two or three sides to every person. Getting this one right is our practice of a lifetime.

Kate Kirkpatrick is a writer who found a career in design based on her fascination with people and figuring out why they do the things they do. In 17 years at Gensler, she’s worked in brand design, practice management, marketing, executive communications as well as advising Gensler's D.C. office on beer and wine selection for social events. She’s a Washington Nationals season ticket holder and NASCAR aficionado working her way through a bucket list of big college football games. Contact her at kate_kirkpatrick@gensler.com.

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