by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) Brand character and culture have moved from being high-end brand deliverables to becoming the bread and butter of branding. We live in a world where people who are serious about brands ask, “What is our character and what tools will we use to define it?”, as well as the trickier one, “What are we going to do about this culture thing?”

Struggle to articulate

But what makes brand character so difficult and why do we struggle to articulate it well? This first, I believe, is simply a matter of taxonomy or even just template. What boxes do you need to tick? What do you mean when you say character? Your response could simply be: “I mean that you define who the brand is; describe the brand like a movie character.” The template becomes one of simply describing your brand as if it acts in a movie. The problem we end up with is then formalising this, not in order to replicate (although it would also be that) but also to make sure we hit all the marks.

The description of “a strong-willed woman willing to disregard the done thing” may either describe Marine Le Pen, as she moved towards championing the right (from the point of view of the liberal left), or Taylor Swift, when she protested the new trend of platforms such as Spotify. You need to add more to make it accurate.

One tool that does stand us in good stead is to leverage the insight of Carl Jung in order to get a framework. What might pull Swift and Le Pen apart is that the former is a creator who champions old values of creativity and the latter a conqueror according to the even older rules of older societies. Therein lies the secret: being able to describe the why but also the cultural context within which that matters.

It’s tempting to believe that it’s always a disaster when you get it wrong. Or to say that, when someone gets it wrong, you’ll spot it from a mile away. It’s unfortunately not the case. I’ve over the years taken a line from a philosophy lecturer to describe our industry: “It’s a discipline, not a science.” As in philosophy, a horrible idea comes across as a good one when delivered with charm and style. It is why, early on in philosophy, we get taught the fallacies of argument. The argument that leads us to believe something is true because everyone believes it. Or something most of us has experienced, the argument through violence — agree or else.


The argument, however, seems plausible when we’re not aware of the shortcomings. Or the weaknesses. It becomes easy to take a lie for truth in the face of popular consensus or become more-agreeable in the face of violence. Similarly, a poorly constructed character seems like the real thing when there’s no alternative or we don’t really know what we’re looking for.

Consider the following two commercials for a brand I often use as a reference. Not too long ago, the internet was ablaze with a student film. It was a project or a mock ad for adidas, featuring an aged man attempting to escape from an old age home. It was a good film — well-executed. It captured a spirit of rebellion and defiance that the brand (especially originals) has come to be known for. In addition to that, it allows for the opportunity to showcase a product and it demonstrates the history of that product.

The narrative rings true and, on further investigation, the story revolves around a real human story that resonates with the creator of the commercial — someone who is potentially in the target audience. So, in many ways, it ticks all the boxes: it’s true to a consumer’s life, it’s rebellious, it showcases the heritage of the brand and it seamlessly allows for a product to be inserted into the story. But, somehow, it comes up short. It misses a few tricks. Not that one would say that with Mashable featuring it and the world coming to life with a student film that one critic noted “this is what adidas ads should be”.

In this particular case, adidas happened to have been working on the next big thing that better brings the brand to life. Early this year, adidas released its commercial, “Original is never finished” which, according to rumour, crashed its website. It is, as it says, a tour de force of what it means to be original. It pursues not the idea of happiness but rather the idea of originality, going down routes of deviance and non-conformity. In other iconic pieces such as “House Party” or “Your future is not mine”, the protagonists are within the realm of deviance but either shrug it off or stand to the side. In the latest iteration, the brand itself seems somewhat deviant — our protagonists seem involved in that grey area between what ought and what ought not.

The sincerity or the true pursuit of the archetype seems to once again pull the two brands apart. The former, the brand with the elderly gentleman, seems far closer to that of an ordinary man. His dreams are accessible and we mayall sympathise with his cause. Who wants to grow old and cast your trainers aside? All of us want to, as the ad goes, break free. It’s in essence the pursuit of happiness. Or, closer to the truth, the pursuit of everyday happiness.

A different pursuit

“Original is Never Finished” is a different pursuit that sort of puts happiness aside. Here I like to look to my favourite cultural critic and philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, who argued that creativity and happiness very seldom live together. He notes how, when we’re in that creative space, when we’re in the process of discovering and creating, we’re not considering happiness. Instead, we’re willing to suffer. Early scientists accepted the possibility of dying when in the verge of a new discovery. Orwell himself lived as a homeless man for a good while in order to really step outside the stratified society he despised.

It is an odd thought but if adidas, in the late 1930s or early 1940’ needed a writer as an ambassador, Orwell might have been its man. Speculation aside, the brand does go a long way in recognising the somewhat arduous, treacherous and lonely journey in self-expression that doesn’t guarantee happiness or ease. In fact, it guarantees very little other than simply moving ahead and staying busy with what it is that you do.

This is not to put a student’s work down. What I love about the Escape piece is that it speaks not to what consumers want. This was not his job and adidas does a fantastic job of mining trends. What the student did really well was to apply the brand to his own experience and his own life. The brand helped him tell his story. This is what we want people to do. The difference between his work and the brand’s work is the difference between the journey and the destination. It’s important to acknowledge that our consumers are individuals, made up of many thoughts, opinions and experiences. They’re all on their way somewhere for a variety of reasons. In these journeys, our brands are able to provide waypoints or beacons according to which they can coordinate life. The adidas brand provides us with an interesting point of view, that of fulfillment without pursuing rules or happiness. In a time where rules are disappointing and the authorities are letting us down, we might need a cultural waypoint that sits outside the realm of acceptable norms. What is wrong with unacceptable norms? Are the norms of today not by definition unacceptable? These are difficult thoughts to have in a silo. But when big cultural icons bring these conversations to the table, it provides a fort for those who want to think it, too.

Mine culture further

Putting intellectual items on the menu of public conversation might be one of the many functions of brands in a modern era. It might also be the job of anyone who holds a big enough loudhailer. But, before we jump the gun to throw ideas out there, we might want to mine culture further to find out what’s there, what’s needed and who has to say it. And, in order to answer these questions, we’re going to have to get thoroughly well-acquainted with the tools and methodologies that allow us to build culturally relevant, accurate and complete brand characters that people may fall in love with.


DK BadenhorstDK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) is head of strategy at Cape Town ad agency, 140BBDO, and brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication through cultural insight and semiotics. He contributes the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to

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