Investing Insight

Harnessing Identity: How Brands Can Help Consumers Find Their Leverage

KJ Sidberry, Principal

Spring 2022

6 min read

We all carry the need to label and categorize. Acknowledging differences and similarities informs our conceptions of categories, and ultimately helps us navigate a complex social world. These organizational structures are what underpin our conception of identity—a subject that continues to occupy our collective headspace at Forerunner.

Over the past couple years, Covid-19 and movements like BLM, Stop AAPI Hate, etc. have brought conversations around identity to the forefront. These events created a universal holding pattern that encouraged people from all communities to check in with themselves, question their behaviors, and examine their attitudes. After two years of processing these changes, many individuals and communities are finding stronger voices, and culture is finally responding with products and services that reflect their unique identities and needs.

As we look forward, we recognize that our pursuit of self-actualization has never been more important. At Forerunner, we are passionate about human needs and finding opportunities to serve them in ways that promote empowerment and fulfillment. We are learning that one of the biggest drivers of human need is your identity and the community(ies) to which you find kinship. We are on the hunt for offerings that appeal to this particular mindset and are capable of deeply penetrating into the unique need states of different communities. We love speaking with founders who are deeply anchored to the opportunity and are leveraging timely business model innovation and digital DNA to build category-defining businesses.

Identity Has An Expanded Role in Today’s Culture

The earliest iterations of Forerunner sought to support a new wave of companies targeting a digitally native consumer. This consumer—often a white, urban, upwardly mobile, a coastal purchaser—represented only a narrow slice of America’s rich diversity. Since then, as technology has become increasingly ubiquitous, modern brands and offerings have evolved to serve more diverse groupings. Just recently, we’ve seen banks that cater to the LGBTQ+ community, digital-first groceries for an Asian palate, salons that celebrate and specialize in afro-textured hair, and clothing engineered for extended sizes. Even in this progress, there is still ample opportunity to be and do better.

To explore the relationship that exists among consumerism and identity, we recently surveyed 750 consumers across the United States. We defined identity along the lines of race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, age, health status, parental status, and more. 

We recognize that any discussion around identity is nuanced and complex, and no group is monolithic. We, nonetheless, challenged ourselves to dig into hard questions: How should brands create or lean into affinity, and what might be the ingredients for success? How proud and loud can a brand afford to be about its affinity focus, and how does that change with different audiences? Is there enough oxygen for multiple brands serving the same demographic to exist simultaneously, and if so, how should they show up? 

Unique Needs Require Dedicated Attention

Every person represents a mosaic of different identities, potentially belonging to multiple communities simultaneously. In fact, 65% of our survey respondents aligned with more than one “identity.”

However, we learned that underserved demographics hold stronger attachments to the parts of their identity that experience insufficient support. When asked to single out only one part of their identity that contributed most to their life experiences (“leading segment”), we found that Black and Asian respondents were among the ethnic groups to identify most strongly with race. In other words, members of these communities appear to have deeper considerations for race than their counterparts; 33% of Black respondents labeled race/ethnicity as their leading segment, and 30% of Asian respondents did the same. Conversely, only 8% of White respondents saw race as their leading segment. Instead, age (15%) and gender (15%) took priority, and 19% listed none at all. We found a similar pattern for sexual orientation.  

In order to fill this gap in support, people often look to products, platforms, and services. Identity, and consequently community and affinity, then become major drivers of consumer behavior. The categories for which personal identity holds the most influence include family care, health, personal care, education, and finances. 

In light of this, our research suggests that brands may find opportunities to align with affinity in one of two circumstances:

1) Biologically-rooted differences justify the need for a unique offering or product.

It is fairly common to refer to members of your tribe as people who “look like you” and the origins of social categorization are rooted in physicality. More than socioeconomic status or religious affiliation, these biological markers tend to be more visibly obvious. The reality is that biology frequently imposes a unique set of needs, which we see play out in our research: we found that respondents wanted more representation across personal care (33%) and health (28%).

Features like hair texture, skin pigmentation, and sexual health--particularly as they surface across different ethnic groups and genders--carry specific needs that deserve specific attention. For example, 64% of Asian respondents purchased in the personal care category from companies they felt marketed specifically to their identity, as well as 62% of Black respondents, and 51% of Hispanic respondents.

How skin conditions manifest and how products react have a lot to do with the amount of pigment in skin. However, there’s a dearth of education and testing when it comes to skincare for darker skin, even among brands with a heritage of formulating high-quality, dermatologist-recommended products.

Brands like Kinlo (subsidiary of A-Frame, a Forerunner portfolio company), Ceylon, and Walker & Co aim to fill the void left by majority-focused incumbents by serving more pigmented skin and different hair textures. The kinky-coily textures found among members of the Black community warrant different treatments, care, and protective styles, and salons like Naza and brands like Radswan and Waeve elevate the experience associated with caring for afro-textured hair, understanding that texture shouldn’t be an impediment to a thoughtful, delightful experience. 

Gender-affirming care has its own unique biological considerations, and dedicated practices make sense for gender-diverse communities. Folx and Plume recognize this fact, and take the extra step of powering their offering with affirming medical providers and clinicians to appropriately respect the needs of this community.

47% of women aged 30 to 60 experience the symptoms of hormonal imbalance, which often goes misdiagnosed or unacknowledged. Evvy, an at-home testing company, works to decode the vaginal microbiome, while Womaness and Alloy, menopause-focused health and wellness brands, not only prioritize women’s bodies but also honor their medical needs.

The companies above share a dedicated orientation around needs that have a biological rooting. Each company focuses on a problem facing a particular community, creating a mission-aligned, human-centric platform to authentically serve product-human need fit

2) Unequal consideration and inequality at an institutional level require dedicated overcorrection in favor of the underprivileged group.

Often, our ability to create social categorizations can pair with prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping, where our capacity to identify differences between us leads to marginalization capable of growing into institutional inequity. We see examples of this inequality alongside misrepresentation across all categories but can highlight entertainment, food, finances, and healthcare, where we’ve seen tremendous attention.

Entertainment

Entertainment naturally orients around the majority, where the assumption is that more eyeballs net more ratings, reviews, and engagement. This ignores any subgroup that falls outside the obvious majority, even when this subgroup represents enormous spending potential. Companies like Blacktag aim to create a destination for Black creators and audiences with original programming and own the $10 billion lost each year due to the lack of Black representation. Just Women’s Sports is addressing the dramatic increase in viewership of women’s sports despite only 4% of coverage and limited investment.

Food

Ethnic cuisines have long been relegated to the back of the many supermarkets, where just a single aisle is designed to support almost an entire globe of different cuisines. On top of this, the brands frequently featured in these aisles typically lack cultural integrity. 

Asian cuisine, in particular, still suffers from the vilification of MSG, which historically has had xenophobic underpinnings. New supermarket concepts like Weee! and Umamicart seek to honor Asian culture and identity. Popular foods brands like Omsom, Fly By Jing, and Immi proudly celebrate Asian heritage, rewriting a narrative that stands in loud defiance to anti-Asian hate.

Finances

Crises like the COVID pandemic and the Great Recession of 2008 have underscored existing economic challenges facing African Americans, Hispanics, and other marginalized groups. Middle-class Black households shave ~50% less income and 5-7x lower net wealth compared to their white counterparts. Despite making up just 32% of the U.S. population, Black and Latinx households represent 64% and 47% of the country’s unbanked and underbanked households, respectively. What’s more, recent data also suggests that Black and Latinx communities are disproportionately targeted by providers of high-cost loans.

Kinly is a financial platform designed for a Black user base, leveraging technology, affinity-focus, and education to close the wealth gap for members of the Black community. Similarly, Suma (targeting the Latinx community), Cheese (Asian-American community), Majority (migrant community), and Daylight (LGBTQ+ community) have examined the specific financial plights of their respective groups and built offerings that work to make financial inclusion accessible. 

Healthcare

Like in finance, COVID has created a spotlight for the discrimination that permeates our healthcare system and results in lower standards of care. A May 2020 study estimated that in the U.S., Black people were ~3.6 more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. 29% of transgender people report that healthcare providers have refused to see them because of their gender identity. Women remain 50-75% more likely than men to have an adverse drug reaction because of their exclusion from or underrepresentation in clinical trials.

Mounting evidence suggests that when physicians and patients share the same race or affinity, the quality of care improves. This includes medication adherence, shared decision-making, more thorough screening, patient understanding of risk, patient perceptions of treatment decisions, and other aspects of care. Health platforms like Alkeme (Forerunner portfolio company) and Spora Health acknowledge the disparities that exist within traditional health care systems and counter with affinity-focused, culturally-competent practices to tackle health inequalities. 

Purpose Building Affinity-Focused Offerings

There is a clear, market-supported opportunity to deliver offerings that meet people where they are and where they want to be. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to serve family care, education, and aesthetics, where we’ve seen fewer affinity-focused companies. 

Can we expect to see more enrichment brands that discuss the nuances of identity and the difficult conversations of life like A Kid’s Book About? In what ways can we think about building the digital equivalent of a village for working parents? 

Interestingly, the notion of identity is up for yet another evolution. As web 3 begins to permeate culture, identity will transition from being staked on one’s upbringing, cultural legacy, or inherited traits to being anchored to one’s commitments, hobbies, and interests all immutably recorded on the blockchain. In this environment, people claim more agency over their identity. The flexibility with which one can approach their “digital” identity can have a rippling impact on how you choose to express yourself and what needs then follow.

We at Forerunner see the potential for a burgeoning cohort of identity and community-aligned offerings that see, treat, and meet the needs of individuals and specific groups of people. We’ve had the privilege of investing in companies like A-Frame, Alkeme, Revel, Prose, and others. 

If you’re building a company that empowers consumers, catering to the needs endemic to the diverse facets of our identity, we would love to be in touch! We are energized by big ideas that are organic to their intended audiences and allow users to reclaim what it means to be who they are. 

Unique people. Unique approaches.

We’re a diverse team of visionaries and veterans who looked at the VC industry and said: “We can do more.” Together, we’re redefining what VC can be — for consumers who deserve better.

We’re a diverse team of visionaries and veterans who looked at the VC industry and said: “We can do more.” Together, we’re redefining what VC can be — for consumers who deserve better.