For whatever reason, the importance of archetypes in our culture has been on my mind a lot these last few days. Perhaps it is because of a series of tongue-in-cheek posts about Britney Spears I wrote for another blog. Perhaps it is because of the Superbowl. (See comments attached to my previous post.) At any rate, whether we like it or not, the human brain
Though the development and management of brands is central and fundamental to
everything we do, are the tools we use up to the job? Or do they do more harm
than good? Brands are complex, abstract and difficult to pin down. However, in
endeavouring to define them we often forget this. With techniques such as brand
pyramids,we take something wild and untamed and attempt to constrain and control
it. Rather than trying to understand brands in their natural habitat, we put
them in a zoo. I recognise that pyramids, onions and similar techniques can be
useful internal disciplines. But do they really help define the unchanging core
values of a brand? We spend weeks debating the nuances of synonyms, performing
semantic gymnastics to prove that Brand X is different from Brand Y, and
agonising over whether something is an Emotional Benefit or a Brand Value – a
distinction we struggle to understand in the first place. At the end of the day,
what does this get us? More often than not, a pile of disconnected words that
looks like nothing less than an explosion in a bombed thesaurus factory.
Unfortunately, having built our pyramid and agreed that our brand is
contemporary, stylish, relevant, inclusive and other usual suspects, we fall
into the trap of thinking our job is finished. Usually though, we are no closer
to articulating ‘core essence’ than when we began – even if that particular box
has been filled in. What should be rich, complex and, by definition, hard to
articulate ends up neutered and subjected to death by a thousand adjectives.
Ironically, our supposed unchanging brand template is reduced to a fluid
selection of meaningless or undifferentiating words that even those close to the
process interpret in different ways. The result, to quote Shakespeare, is a
brand which is ‘…a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his
hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: a tale told by an idiot, full of
sound and fury, signifying nothing’.You may feel this is harsh, but ask yourself
how many walking shadows there are out there, and if we struggle to find
meaning, think how consumers feel.
There are certain basic characters and storylines that appear regularly in myth, fairytale, literature and film; archetypes that represent core aspects of the human condition, and tap deep into our motivations and sense of meaning. When we encounter these, they resonate in powerful ways that transcend culture and demographics.This is why, when penning the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas turned to Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to help him understand the archetypal narrative structure and characters found in these mythic stories, and why these three films enjoy such strong and enduring appeal. Whether Luke Skywalker, The Man With No Name, Red Riding Hood, Harry Potter, or real people such as JFK, Princess Diana or Marilyn Monroe, there is something primal in archetypal characters and situations that stirs our emotions, stimulates our memory and sometimes changes lives. In developing and managing brands, are we really so different from George Lucas or a budding Barbara Cartland?Ironically, in this postmodern age when people are supposedly no longer interested in meta-narratives with common understanding, brand development is nothing short of creating a story that people want to be part of; a character with values that have deep resonance which our target audience want to emulate or be associated with.This is why a Harley-Davidson marketer can say: ‘what we sell is the ability for a 43-year old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him’ Or why Scott Bedbury, in his time head of marketing at Nike and Starbucks, believes that: ‘a brand is a metaphorical story that … connects with something very deep — a fundamental human appreciation of mythology … Companies that manifest this sensibility … invoke something very powerful’.
I find it more exciting to think of myself as the author of eternal brand stories than as someone who writes strategy documents and brand pyramids.