Just when you think you’ve seen everything, you go to a school reunion. At the last one I attended, we all gleefully got to play ‘who on earth is that?’ An awesome testament to the powers of surgical transformation and personal chutzpa, our mystery classmate commanded the spotlight as she did the mwa-mwa tour of the room, dragging everyone’s helplessly mesmerised gaze with her. Only when I heard her speak could I work out who she was, and then the game of finding any remotely familiar features was on. Utterly riveting. Amanda (appropriately enough, not her real name) had morphed from a scrawny, awkward, unkempt and rather odd girl into a buxom, pouty lacquered vision of… what must have been someone’s vision of a middle-aged barbie doll. Unreal. In every sense.
What was particularly striking however was that as fascinating as she was, people didn’t see her as a ‘who’, but rather as a ‘what’ – as a curiosity. It’s hard to build a meaningful relationship on those terms. But then brands have been doing that for years.
When I was dragged up through the strategic hallways of JWT, we were instructed to think of a brand as a person, theoretically complete with quirks and foibles to make it warm, unique and accessible. Of course this was a farce. Putting aside the debate over whether a concept or construct can ever be that 3 dimensionally human, the process by which this humanity was supposed to be inferred ensured it was a non-starter to begin with. Rather like expecting Six Sigma to foster innovation in a corporate environment. Take a functional product or service, get a committee to fill in forms with laundry-lists of characteristics based on what they thought it ‘should’ be or that they thought would appeal to ‘the market, water it down so it will exclude no one, package it up with a nice 30 sec TVC that brings those characteristics to life and presto! Vanilla Frankenstein Ken Dolls masquerading as psychotically friendly bank managers weaving themselves into the milestones of our lives, Stepford mums twinkling over laundry stains and dirty toilets, and endless immaculate young couples oozing love and dental perfection whilst traveling the world and shopping enthusiastically for insurance. (Why can’t banks market their perfectly valuable services without having to worm their way into our hearts and bar-mitzvahs? Particularly since we all know they’ll eat our children if there’s a whiff of financial hardship on the horizon.)
A fascinating feat of strategic surgical engineering perhaps, but hardly magnetically attractive. ‘Perfection’ never is.
Little has changed, which is a pity. The most magnetic brands are still those like Apple, Maui Jim, or Twitter that are determinedly themselves, that do not emerge slickly formed and beautifully botoxed for mass consumption, but start by standing for something real, then grow organically through interactions with the market (usually niche at first) they naturally appeal to. They have artistry because their creation – co-creation in fact – seems seamless and elegant rather than produced and imposed. Brands essentially only exist in the minds of the consumer or marketplace. It is an illusion to think they can be controlled by their ‘maker’ – particularly in an era where on-line word of mouth rules.
Amanda’s perfect plasticity didn’t make her appealing. But then, perhaps her niche lay elsewhere. And ‘who’ now lived behind the ‘what’ she’d become was destined to remain a mystery. Once she finished her whirlwind tour of the room, she ran out of things to say.
Next time I looked around, she’d disappeared.