A Branding Lesson from George Orwell
As I walked into my office today, there was a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 on my desk. On the book was a sticky note attached to a page with a drawn arrow that pointed to a certain passage. The note wasn’t signed, but I knew that the words “READ THIS!” were written in my assistant Heather’s handwriting.
Like most books I was supposed to read in high school, all I can remember about George Orwell’s 1984 is what Cliff Notes told me to remember. And what I remember most are warnings against evil dictators, Big Brother and the thought police.
As I wondered if Heather was trying to send me a message, I sheepishly started reading the passage. By the time I was done I was ready to give her a promotion.
Here is an extract from the passage the arrow pointed to:
The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own. The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.
The context is less important than the content of this message. But if you’re interested, it’s in Chapter 9 when the lead character finishes reading a book he had been struggling to get his hands on.
Heather has known for a while that I have a fascination with the similarities between stories and brands. She also knows that this passage supports what I believe is yet another in a long list of parallels that can be drawn between good stories and good brands.
To understand why Orwell’s passage resonated with me, I should first let you in on a couple of beliefs I have about brands, in general. You should know that I don’t think brands are objects; rather they are labels given to objects for which we associate certain meanings. Furthermore, you should know that I believe that the “best” brands contained within anyone’s favored set of brands satisfy needs that go beyond product or service functions. Rather, they are brands that have meanings we value as important. Mercedes means something important to the owners of Mercedes, as does the meaning of Subaru to its owners.
Understanding this, the real “ah ha!” for me is a point that Orwell makes in this passage about “best books.” He says they tell us what we already know and that they are the “product of minds similar to ours.” In other words, they don’t create beliefs and values as much as they reinforce what’s already there. And they do this by awakening our minds or putting “our scattered thoughts in order.”
When Steve Jobs passed away, one of the most poignant comments I heard about him was that he didn’t give us Apple computers, iPods or iPads. Rather, he gave us Apple. He gave us a meaning that we could connect with emotionally for those of us who, like Jobs, value what is promoted through Apple’s theme line, “Think Different.” The reason we could connect with this meaning isn’t because Steve Jobs put that meaning into our belief system. It was already there. Like a good story, meanings associated with Apple are meanings that, to borrow from Orwell, “fascinate or more exactly reassure us.” Apple gave us something we were already predisposed to receiving.
The reason this is an important concept is plain to see when examining powerful brands like Apple, Harley-Davidson, Disney, Nike and others that tap into and/or celebrate our existing values. But just as there are lessons from success, there are lessons from underestimating just how important it is for brands to crystalize rather than create meaning.
Try as they might, brands like stories cannot change beliefs and associated values if we are not ready to have them changed. Marketing history is rife with examples that prove the point. Oldsmobile learned this lesson the hard way when it tried to convince its audience that “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Despite its clever attempt to shed a different light on its brand, the belief that Oldsmobile is a car for older people was too entrenched to be radicalized. As Sears learned through its efforts to shed light on “The Softer Side of Sears,” it was impossible for us to let go of its harder side image we had come to associate through brands like Craftsman, Die-Hard, and Kenmore. We gave Radio Shack a “you’ve got to be kidding” snicker when they tried to go from geeky to hip with its new moniker “The Shack.” And then there’s the archetypal New Coke mistake that taught us that changing an image, especially when it ain’t broke, can be a costly mistake.
Time and time again we hear Chicken Little pronouncements by management that “we must change our identity (read: meaning) or we are going to perish.” More often than not, the only thing that needs to change is an improved sense of meanings that haven’t changed.
At its core, Old Spice is a brand we have learned to associate with masculinity. Granted, it might be our father’s aftershave. But “Smell Like A Man,” didn’t bother to change Old Spice’s meaning in order to reignite its appeal. Rather, it stayed the course merely with a more contemporized frame of reference we now have for masculinity. Volkswagen’s Beetle found its link to its reverse snobbery roots when it reestablished a cult following by introducing the new Beetle with alternative rock music. It furthered that link by attaching a flower vase to its dashboard. Sperry Topsiders, an old, tired brand sold mostly to men, dramatically increased sales by making its long-held association with the good life, on or around the water, relevant to women and kids.
Thank-you George Orwell for putting my scattered thoughts in order. And thank-you Heather. You’ve been elevated to Super Assistant.