by DK Badenhorst. Brand characters are not developed by committee; they aren’t even developed by one person — they are people. This idea came to life again two weekends ago when I saw the Amazon Echo commercial.

In his book “I know you got soul”, Jeremy Clarkson writes about how the Ferrari product captures the racing spirit of Enzo Ferrari — a man who was willing to sell cars to the general public in order to finance his love for motor racing. He was also quoted as saying, “The client is not always right.”

This really came into its own when tractor manufacturer Ferrucio Lamborghini, after buying his own Ferrari, made some gearbox recommendations to Enzo. Enzo returned the favour by recommending that Ferrucio stick to tractors. Ferrucio, insulted by the suggestion that he knew nothing about racing cars, went home and set out on a mission to show Enzo that he too could build a racing car.

Or so the legend goes.


This story, I’m sure, is — to a great extent — myth. But now that you’ve heard it, you can’t really look at the two brands and say “Rubbish”. If you’ve ever been close to Viglietti Motors in Cape Town when it takes a client (or fan) on a test drive, you’ll be excused for tucking your ears into your shoulders as they head up towards De Waal Drive. The actual car might not be a racing car but it’s definitely related to one.

Later on in the same book, Clarkson then notes how Lamborghinis are not supercars but rather hyper cars. In his own lascivious way, he notes how supercars play with g-force and hyper cars with G-strings. Hyper cars are made to impress andd it doesn’t take much to link Clarkson’s two stories together to show how right he really is.

I’m not a huge Clarkson fan but I’ll give him this insight — if a car is going to have soul, it’s going to get it from its founding father.

It’s about brand

Clarkson chalks it up to cars having soul but I’ll go further to say it’s about brand. The guiding principles of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and all the other fantastic automotive brands are plausible and relevant because they are real. The brand characters were not developed by committee; they weren’t even developed by one person — they were people. Enzo Ferrari was a stubborn racing fanatic; Soichiro Honda was a dreamer.

But let’s get back to the Amazon Echo ad. It hasn’t been a well-received production…

The video takes us through the day-to-day actions of an ordinary (an eerily too ordinary) family’s life together with Echo, a digital personal assistant housed in a speaker-cylinder. It’s an oddly cheesy movie and I can’t help but see the brand character of Jeff Bezos in action.

A peculiar businessman

I’m a fan of Amazon’s founder; he’s a peculiar businessman and I like the personal brand he brings to the battle between the tech brands.

On the one hand, Apple had its founder, Steve Jobs — another man who didn’t believe the customer was always right. Jobs championed design, and brought beautiful and life-enhancing products to the world. It’s easy to join the dots from the brand through the product to a man who followed his love above all (and dropped in on calligraphy classes because he wanted to). This makes for a brand with real soul.

Bezos, on the other hand, brings curiosity and a sheer love for the future to the tech world. He hasn’t set out to make the world’s best tablet; he’s set out to make the world’s best e-reader.

Drive today into the future

The best tablet will fade into obscurity as soon as the next one is out but the best e-reader will sit on top of existing habits and drive who we are today into the future.

It not about building an alpha product; rather, it’s about upgrading our habits — the device is sort of a gadget tacked onto the back.

Whereas Jobs’ products ask, “How can you resist?”, Bezos asks, “Why would you not want one?” The one lures in and seduces — the other just makes good practical sense.

Dots aren’t connected

In the same way, the Echo commercial is not a seductive piece of communication that leaves us with an Amazon-shaped void in our soul. Instead, it’s a relatively truthful product commercial presented in a ‘serving suggestion’ style. It’s an honest sales-orientated ad that comes from the first online retail giant.

In the context of Bezos and the company he’s built, this commercial is somewhat endearing. The failure is probably that the dots aren’t connected — Bezos simply isn’t to Amazon what Jobs was to Apple or Branson is to Virgin.

No matter what a brand gets up to, at some point it has to answer to a character and a personality of sorts. Companies with single leaders can leverage that single personality in order to drive the brand, especially if the company is rooted in the passion of the founder.

Not the only personalities

But founders are not the only personalities in the game. Look around your boardroom table (I’ve always been interested in the people who run a company today). Who are they? What do they believe in? Can they believe in the brand values being suggested?

Equally, you should look at who you are talking to. Today, more than ever, your customers have the potential to own your brand. What do they believe in? What are their values? What do they expect from you?

This non-linear interaction is important. As Brendan Eich learned the hard way, your own values have to line up with your product, your brand and your consumer’s values. It’ not a top-down affair; it’s more like a social circle.

Difficult and easy

These questions are, at the same time, very difficult and very easy to answer. Difficult because we’re trying to formalise the social software our brains developed over millions of years in order to leverage and organise our social groups. Easy because we all run the latest version of that software in our own brains.

The depth to which we can unpack this and apply it to our brands will, to a great degree, determine our brand’s success.

DK Badenhorst


DK Badenhorst is a cultural insight and semiotics consultant who brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication. He contributes the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to


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