FieldNotes: Owl House demonstrates how brand narratives shape reality
by Marguerite Coetzee. There are many sides to a story. Brands often attempt to control their narrative but neglect to realise the impact that different perspectives have on telling an authentic and holistic story. The small town of Nieu Bethesda is just one example of how narratives may take on a life of their own, and create an entirely new brand story.
Nestled deep in the Karoo is a forgotten outpost. This isolated place that, at first glance, appears to have missed the 21st century, is Nieu Bethesda. A key driver of tourism, apart from the allure of escape from busy city-life, is the narrative surrounding the artist of the Owl House. This home-turned-museum, filled with cement sculptures, glass fragments, and speculation, deeply inspired South African playwright, Athol Fugard, who then wrote The Road to Mecca. It’s his story to which many attribute Nieu Bethesda’s prolonged existence and current success as a tourist destination.
There are many stories, rumours and myths surrounding Nieu Bethesda, and the Owl House in particular; these stories are sources of information, meaning, interest, speculation, and conversation. To illustrate the complexity and potency of storytelling — especially when considering the multiple perspectives from which a story may be viewed, interpreted and explained — we can explore the tale of the elusive mermaid.
There’s evidence to show that, millions of years ago, parts of the Karoo were underwater. When the ocean receded, it left pockets of fertile land and underground caverns — believed to be the hiding place of the mythical Karoo mermaids. There are rock paintings depicting fish-tailed human figures, and folktales that warn of these alluring creatures. Some interpret the story to be a warning, rather than an historical account, because water is both scarce and dangerous; the story of the Karoo Mermaid could be told to prevent children from drowning or wasting water. Mermaid sculptures feature in the Camel Yard of the Owl House, too — adding to its mystical enchantment and perhaps another layer of interpretation to the age-old tale.
This is just one example of how there are many sides to a story, and highlights the importance of piecing together different elements to get the full picture.
Lessons from a tourist town
Lesson 1: Collaborate and create collectively
The case of Nieu Bethesda teaches us that it’s important for brands to incorporate multiple perspectives in order to formulate a holistic perspective and inclusive story. Storytelling is a way for brands to construct meaning and to reveal different lived experiences of their consumers. Brands that collaborate with consumers as active participants are successful in creating shared meaning and a collective identity associated with their brand narrative.
“Human beings participate in history both as actors and narrators.” —Michel Trouillot, anthropologist.
Lesson 2: Tell timeless tales
Even though we live in times of accelerated change, where the present rapidly disappears into the past, we’ll always be able to find several timeless human truths that stand the test of time. Themes like “belonging”, “identity”, “honesty”, “commitment”, “hope” and others are relatable, regardless of time or place. Brands that incorporate these human truths into their narratives are able to speak to a wider audience, across generations and geographical borders.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” —Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, novelist.
Lesson 3: Disrupt without destroying
The things we think about become the words we speak and the actions we do. The opportunity to communicate ideas to a large audience comes with the responsibility to effect positive change. Brands that are aware of the politics and poetics of storytelling are more enlightened and progressive in the way that they present their narratives, and are capable of being disruptive.
“Are we the result of our history, or the cause of our future?” —Philip Spies, professor.
Marguerite Coetzee is an anthropologist, artist and futurist who provides research and insight services through Omniology. FieldNotes, the latest series in her regular column on MarkLives, captures experiences from the field, shares the cultural lessons learned, and advises on qualitative tools, methodologies and frameworks when exploring the world of the consumer.
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