Brands & Branding: You Tolkien to me?
by Christo van der Westhuizen. Storytelling is magical and all stories, including stories about stories, are recycled truths. When great marketers get hold of them, the big question, as Stephen Brown pointed out in Wizard! Harry Potter’s Brand Magic is: “You Tolkien to me?”
He makes the critical point that, in a fast-changing connected world, brands shouldn’t only tell stories; they also need to listen to their customers’ stories. Consumers are no longer passive recipients of marketing messages; they are reciprocal brand marketers and members, offering their own stories, realities and interpretations of the lived experience of the brand in their world.
This gives the brand its ‘real life’, its colour, its context, its lived experience and its authentic magic.
Everything is connected — from James Dean to Des Erasmus
Taking this a step further, we add ‘intertextuality’ to the mix — a term first coined by Julia Kristeva in a work of literary theory, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, published in English translation in 1980. She describes a key aspect of contemporary storytelling, namely that characters — fictional or real — no longer exist in isolation. Everything is connected, tout se tient, to draw on the French phrase that presents itself as the key to the plot of Umberto Echo’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988).
Intertextuality, in effect, takes story recycling to another level. It no longer attempts to distinguish between reality and illusion, or to imitate reality in the way that modernist advertising has done for close to a century. In postmodern(ist) marketing, it has rather become a case of substituting signs of the real for the real itself. What this meant for French cultural theorist and photographer, Jean Baudrillard, as he expressed in 1983, is that nostalgia assumes its full meaning and impact when the real is no longer what it used to be, or what we perceived it to be. The death of the perceived real, of wild freedom, epitomised by the deeply felt icon, James Dean, in Easy Rider, and our nostalgic longing to experience this once more — explains why:
- Storytelling has become the dominant mode of discourse in postmodern marketing, and
- Emotion supersedes promotion
Accordingly, the postmodern story has become a form of pastiche, a perpetually augmented hyperreality which adds up to more than the sum-total of its recycled traces, motifs and characters.
A well-known example of this approach is King James’s brilliant 2009 ‘Legend’ advertising campaign for Allan Gray, in which the aforementioned James Dean is brought back to life to star in a television commercial for the investment firm. The commercial reimagines Dean’s life — and death — and considers the way things could have been, had he survived the car crash that killed him in 1955 at age 24.
Bizarrely and ingeniously, Dean reprises his rebel role in the person of look-alike Des Erasmus, a mechanic from Cape Town, who is coached to walk, talk and smoke like Dean. Ably complemented by body doubles — imitations of an imitation — aspects of Dean’s life are painstakingly reenacted and permutated into a pastiche (or reappropriation) — from receiving a lifetime achievement Oscar and directing his own film, to leading a protest against the Vietnam War. The commercial, which ends with the slogan “Given more time, imagine the possibilities”, concludes with the tragic 1955 accident scene, featuring a replica 550 RSK Porsche Spyder. This time around, however, as the smoke clears, a very much alive Dean is seen drawing a deep breath, leaving the viewer with the question: what if?
The fact that some critics perceived Dean’s return to life as “eerie” is indicative of the production’s conceptual and technical brilliance, and it foregrounds the conjoined nature of reality and fiction/illusion.
The master chameleon
Story recycling is, of course, not a new principle and it is certainly not exclusive to postmodern advertising. While the terms “recycling” and “upcycling” (a form of recycling) are some of the buzzwords of our time, their underlying practice — namely, to reappropriate aspects of the original in a particular sign system — has been around just about for ever, and nowhere more so than in the field of marketing theory. In some respects, marketing theory is a master chameleon, with an innate ability to transmute from one paradigm to the next, all the while taking the credit for the new currency.
This is a chameleon with attitude, that started thinking of itself as an independent field of study more or less a century ago, cleverly adding to the discourse of business sustainability by timeously reinventing and upcycling itself as a field of study: from its product-centric era’s obsession with Jerome McCarthy’s Four Ps and Neil Borden’s Marketing Mix in the 1950s, to placing the customer on the throne following Theodore Levitt’s groundbreaking perspectives on customer-centrism in Marketing Myopia (1960), to the dawn of the — still current — brand era which delivered mainly modernist and a few noteworthy postmodernist texts on brand development, including Stephen Brown’s Postmodern Marketing (1995) and Postmodern Marketing II (1998).
The problem is that marketing theory — in its ambition to enjoy its academic peers’ recognition — became so independent, so standoffish and so isolated in its search for a marketing science that, to this day, it struggles to reintegrate itself with marketing praxis. Whereas “contemporary marketing practices are manifestly postmodern in ethos,” writes Brown in Postmodern Marketing, “marketing theory remains mired in a futile modernist search for laws, regularities and predictability”.
By giving the arts a cold shoulder, marketing theory remained largely ignorant about global philosophical undercurrents that navigated their way to academic allies in the arts, who eagerly assimilated, internalised and recycled matters pertinent to the worldview of the day into a broader, multidisciplinary context: communication studies, critical theory, cultural studies, literary theory, media studies, journalism, architecture and the visual arts.
If marketing theory had taken the trouble to look around, it would’ve noticed that its product-centric era corresponded closely with structuralism in the arts’ focus on the tangible artefact, from the early 1900s to the late 1950s/early 1960s. Similarly, marketing’s second paradigm with its focus on the customer, which lasted from approximately the 1960s to the late 1980s, mirrored the arts’ focus on the recipient, as argued by schools of thought such as reception aesthetics and semiotics. Even marketing theory’s evolution to the brand era during the early 1990s parallels the arts’ interest in transcendental theoretical perspectives and, to some extent, the resultant interest in postmodernism and poststructuralism’s critique of the establishment and societal imbalance.
Early 1900s — 1950s
Early 1900s — 1960s
1960s — 1980s
1960s — 1980s
Early 1990s — date
Mid 1970s — date
Critique on Structuralism
Table 1: Paradigms
Firmly anchored in the modernist paradigm
Marketing theory has remained firmly anchored in the modernist paradigm, fundamentally committed to metrics-minded positivist objectives and theoretical models that promote the ideal of predictable consistency. ‘You can only manage what you can measure’ is probably the sentiment of the day that sets modern marketing theory and praxis apart from postmodern marketing. Obviously, the problem with most metrics-oriented marketing models (which should not be confused with target market segmentation and audience/media inventories) is that they offer perfect hindsight and the promise of informed foresight.
Contrastingly, marketing praxis is, without doubt, mantic at heart, attracted to the unpredictable and obsessed with being different.
Hence the postmodern brand is always one step ahead, with the company forever playing catchup to the expectations created by the brand story. In this story, the postmodern brand seeks to be authentic, ethical and transparent, not only because the company decides to do so, or because the advertising agency preaches the DNA gospel, the philosophy of being real, but, very importantly, because the story is co-authored by its customers. They are the storytellers in the brand contact space who proliferate their experiences on social platforms faster than any business or brand can possibly hope to achieve.
Considering modern marketing theory’s historical apathy towards the arts, the question begs how storytelling has become such an overnight sensation in all things marketing. After all, modern marketing’s army of Kotlerites once resolutely shook off anything remotely redolent of the arts (eg ‘plot’, ‘metaphor’, ‘creative’, ‘literature’, ‘philosophy’, etc) in a bid to become inductees of the exalted business school which ever since, in postmodern marketing critique, has become a metonymy for the alluring dream of science, objectivity and status.
Is it possible that modern marketing theory might be forced to relax its strong territorial grip and align itself with marketing praxis? I believe the answer lies less in what marketing theory might be up to and more in the unstoppable allure of good storytelling, led by a rare species called great storytellers.
Great storytellers tell good stories exceptionally well; bad storytellers tell good stories poorly. Yet, ironically, the plethora of scholarly articles on storytelling in, especially, digital marketing, tend to be so didactic in nature that one would be forgiven for believing that storytelling is a methodical skill that every budding marketer can master. The risk is that marketing theory will once again fall prey to its own modernist programme by turning the unpredictable and mantic at heart into a positivist agenda where everything can be reverse-engineered into a measurable quantum.
Time will tell but the fact is that storytelling has become the enumerating currency of brand strategy.
So where did this currency begin? Some say it started in 1892, when the NW Ayer and Son agency in Philadelphia hired its first full-time copywriter. But it’s safe to say that ‘copywriting’ is merely a function of ‘storytelling’ and — at the next level — ‘storyscaping’, a much-broader marketing approach that, according to Legorburu and McColl (2014), combines the power of stories with the excitement of experiences in immersive worlds where brands and consumers connect.
Legorburu and McColl contend that, by using storyscaping, brands move beyond creating ads into creating worlds where their story becomes part of the consumer’s story and vice versa. Nowhere in the history of advertising was this approach better demonstrated than when Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa Claus for its Christmas adverts.
Before this time, when Santa was known as St Nicholas, he wore a range of colours — red, green, blue and brown — and he had a rather schizophrenic appearance about him, from tall and gaunt to short and elfin, from intellectual to terrifying. But Sundblom, inspired by Clement Moore’s classic poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, created an image of Santa that was friendly, joyous, warm and human. This rendition — initially for Coca-Cola’s ad campaigns only — quickly became the universally accepted template, assimilated and recycled into countless derivatives by many other brands. As everybody knows, Santa Claus continues to manifest himself in a plethora of weird and wonderful ways, from presenting gifts to children sitting on his lap in department stores, to sliding down millions of chimneys to deliver presents the night before Christmas, effortlessly crisscrossing fantasy and reality simply because his story has become part of the consumer’s story.
Analogously, as Johnny Walker successfully pointed out in its “Keep walking” campaign, money doesn’t buy the whiskey. Instead, the brand’s customers buy into the idea of progress: they become the symbol of successful people on a never-ending journey of progress and discovery without an end-destination because, for the Johnny Walker follower, life is not ordinary; it is a never-ending journey of exploration and excitement.
Naturally, to transcend the ordinary as Coca-Cola did by reimagining Santa Claus was to break the mould, to be really ‘creative’ as it were, at least until more or less the beginning of this century, when being “disruptive” became the latest and greatest buzzword in marketing rhetoric. Coined by Clayton M Christensen in his theory of disruptive innovation in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), the term “disruptive” was quickly absorbed and recycled to just about every other industry.
Marketers today employ the term with such ease that one would be forgiven for believing that it is a new marketing approach. The story behind the story, however, is that the term is closely reminiscent of what the Russian formalists called ostranenie — the art of making the familiar appear strange or different; a form of defamiliarisation that sets out to disrupt the status quo.
To disrupt through storytelling is to reimagine, to make strange, for the sake of eliciting response in an ad-littered world where share-of-voice is no longer a simple percentage. In fact, whereas brands once thought of marketing as an imitation of the real, they now understand that product development is a crucial part of marketing’s storyscaping approach.
Case in point is the ‘new’ Ducati Scrambler’s retro reincarnation of the eponymous sixties and seventies motorcycle, an elegant marriage of classical looks with the latest technology, following on a series of single cylinder scrambler motorcycles made by Ducati for the American market from 1962 until 1974. Reprising its role as a better-than-average motorcycle and top fashion statement more than four decades later, the Ducati Scrambler epitomises the postmodern brand’s ability to capitalise on paradise lost, a person’s nostalgic longing to once again experience the good old days, that, in reality, never were, or, as Plato famously mused, the identical copy of a history that never existed.
We all want the sizzle more than the steak. Indeed, when the visionary Elmer Wheeler coined perhaps the best postmodern aphorism of all time in the mid-1920s (“Sell the sizzle, not the steak”), he then already knew that the illusion, the story, becomes the object of desire when it replaces the real.
After all, nothing disrupts like desire, and nothing romances the market like a good story.
- Brown, S. (1995) Postmodern Marketing. London and New York: Routledge.
- Brown, S. (2005) Harry Potter’s Brand Magic Wizard! London: Cyan Books.
- Legorburu, G. & McColl, D. (2014) Storyscaping: Stop creating ads, start creating worlds. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Ogilvy, J. (1990) ‘This postmodern business’, Marketing and Research Today 18, 1: 4-21.
Christo van der Westhuizen is managing director of BRAND et al. He has lectured marketing, media and literary studies at a number of tertiary institutions. He specialises in brand strategy and is currently doing research on storytelling in postmodern marketing towards a second doctorate.
The article first appeared in the 2016 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, an annual review of all aspects of brand marketing — consisting of case-studies, profiles, articles and research. Editorial contributions and sponsored brand profiles accepted until early August for the 2017 edition. Copies of the current edition are still available — buy one here.