Updated: Apr 12, 2019
I will begin this article by posing a simple question. Which is worth more, a completely plain Gucci t-shirt without insignia or a counterfeit Gucci t-shirt, with a clearly visible logo? Most of you will immediately recognise that the authentic t-shirt holds considerably more value, however, now I will pose a significantly more challenging question; why is this the case? The difference in value cannot simply be attributed to the slightly elevated pleasure in wearing the composition of materials in the authentic t-shirt over the counterfeit. Thus, the authentic t-shirts must hold value in its symbolism to the buyer, something which the counterfeit lacks, even with the use of the Gucci insignia.
This begs the question how does a brand develop its symbolism?
According to branding expert Douglas Holt, a brand emerges from the stories that are constructed around it. These stories are authored by the company who owns the brand, the consumer, intermediaries between the brand and consumer (i.e. employees, critics, etc) and the culture industries. This corroborates with renowned psychologists Daniel Kahneman theory, who proposes that the intuitive human mind operates through stories; where it gathers data and then proceeds to derive the most plausible story.
Take a moment to reflect on this proposition by trying to recollect the last few occasions you made an intuitive decision, in doing so you will most likely notice how often you create a narrative in your head to make sense of something. If you accept this notion, it should come as no surprise that as a race, we are compelled by stories; whether it be an anecdote shared between friends, the reading of a compelling novel or watching a riveting drama, storytelling forms a cornerstone of our entertainment, as well as being a key component in our education.
You may be thinking, that’s all well and good but how exactly do I take advantage of storytelling to build a brand?
Before moving forward with this question, I will first introduce a concept developed by renowned psychologist Carl Jung. This is that the human unconscious is built of two systems; the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious is specific to individuals; formed from past experiences. The collective unconscious on the other hand, is not personal and is formed of a set of shared memories and ideas (called archetypes) universal to all humans, regardless of any environmental influences.
Granted this concept is difficult to immediately accept, as we generally perceive our identities, aspirations and anxieties to be personal matters. However, archetypes do go about explaining the independent re-emergence of common mythological themes in every culture throughout history. What’s more, emergence of archetypes is not restricted to mythology, we can see archetypal influences throughout modern expressions in the depiction of art, cinema, and literature. In fact, there is no doubt that in expression and storytelling we gravitate towards these archetypes. Thus, the thinking is, if we can use brands to convey these archetypes, their story becomes intuitively relatable, causing consumers to associate with the brand on a deeper level.
Still feeling sceptical, let’s consider the 12 archetypal themes introduced by Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson in their book The Hero and the Outlaw. You will most likely find yourself associating with each archetype in some manner.
Goal:To be happy.
Goal:To experience a more fulfilling life.
Goal:To understand the world.
Goal:To improve the world.
Goal:To challenge authority.
Goal:To make dreams come true.
Goal:To fit in.
Goal:To inspire love.
Goal:To bring joy to the world.
Goal: To help others.
Goal:To create something of enduring value.
Goal:To bring order and create prosperity for the community.
However, this is not to say that some generic messaging can be carved out utilising archetypes and this will somehow be able to relate to every audience around the world. For archetypes to hold any significance to consumers, they must be portrayed through a cultural branding approach. With this perspective archetypes are simply source material, and the archetypal myth is a tailored message to a specific cultural environment. Meaning a brand must establish both its archetypal base and the cultural code it wishes to use as vehicle in communicating its story. It is vital for a fitting match between the cultural code and the archetype, as the archetypal ideology has no context or comes across as distorted if the wrong cultural code is chosen. Also, for the cultural code to come across as compelling, it must be depicted in an original and artful manner.
This establishes the thematic premises of your brands story, what’s left is learning how to construct an easy to follow and engaging structure and narrative.
A story is composed of 4 fundamental elements:
· The Setting — the world where the story takes place.
· The Characters — individuals who take part in the story: protagonist, antagonist, others.
· The Plot — the series of events that form the story.
· The Controlling Idea — the ‘moral’ of the story, philosophy you want to get across.
The setting is the world that holds the story; every story asks you to accept some sort of proposition about its world. However, this is most noted in genres such as sci-fi and fantasy, where the gap between reality and the fictional world is at its largest. In these genres, audiences need to accept several large propositions to buy into the world of the story.
When conveying your brand’s message, each point of customer interaction is very time sensitive. Thus, unlike traditional storytelling mediums such as novels or a feature films, there isn’t scope to explain the rules a world is governed by. Hence, your audience should be able to immediately assimilate to your constructed world. In his cultural branding model, Douglas Holt claims iconic brands are set in populist worlds. These are places outside the realms of consumerism and elite control. What unifies populists is this freedom from control, where behaviour isn’t the result of the corporate struggle. For example, Nike’s populist world is the African American ghetto and Harley’s is outlaw bikers.
A story generally takes place through the point of view of a singular character, who is known as the protagonist. Over the course of the story this protagonist faces a series of escalating events, as a result of which we see this character grow, this is called the character journey.
In terms of your business, the protagonist is your brand, however, unlike traditional stories where there is one author and a singular perspective, a brand’s character emerges from stories constructed by various authors. The authors are the company who owns the brand, the consumer, intermediaries between the brand and consumer (i.e. employees, critics, ambassadors etc) and the culture industries. The impact of each author varies across product categories. This means that consumers construct a brand’s symbolism through both their lived and mediated experiences. Eliciting the notion that a brand’s image isn’t what the company projects but rather what the consumer perceives. Hence, all areas of consumer interaction should emit the same message that represents an idealised image that target customers either associate with or strive towards.
Stories depict the journey of a protagonist in their attempt to accomplish a goal. In the case of brands, the plot should use archetypal themes as source material to express an identity myth; which its consumers use to express inner desires and anxieties. To be effective, a myth must align with societal desires, this changes with time and region, thus, the effectiveness of a particular portrayal of a myth is not absolute and must evolve with cultural changes. As the brand enacts its myth, it eventually becomes a symbol, a material embodiment of the myth. Customers use the brand as a vehicle to experience the myth, and by doing so build a deep emotional connection with the brand.
The controlling idea can be regarded as the underlying nature of the world that the story is trying to illustrate and the reason the events of the story transpire. This is an abstract idea or a philosophy, that is being expressed through concrete events and actions. This is most explicit in children’s stories, which are vehicles to express simple and easy to grasp morals i.e. lying is bad, be kind and accepting. This controlling idea needs to be subtle, and grow out of the story naturally, so the audience feel as if they’ve learned it for themselves. If you come across as too direct with your controlling idea, it will be perceived as preachy and off-putting. The controlling idea for a brand is not so much a moral, but more the identity myth it portrays. Strong identity myths don’t simply highlight brand personalities, they also encourage self-evaluation; thus, much like the moral of a story, iconic brands can change perceptions.