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What is a brand? Part 2

A Brand is a Myth

In my last post I concluded with the assertion that brands once helped us to understand the power of myth. In responding to a comment about that post I upped the ante or quite possibibly futher muddied the waters by connecting the concept of brand with Noam Chomsky’s idea of a transformational grammar. So, I now have some work to do.

Turning to Chomsky, I want to borrow an early idea of his, that the structure of language has two levels, a deep structure and a surface structure. Deep structure respresets what all language has in common, while surface structure arises from translating or transforming deep structure into surface structure. Chomsky thought that all languages operate at these two levels and that though individual languages do not easily map onto each other, or translate, at the surface level, that the deep structure of all languages has something in common.

So, from Chomsky I want to take the idea that while the surface representations of language may diverge from each other, meaning refers back to the deep structure of language, and at some level all language shares a common root at that deeper level.

Now let me try to explain what I mean in saying a brand is a myth. I am thinking very much of the work of the great Joseph Campell, particularly his ideas in The Power of Myth, a series of interviews he did with Bill Moyers for PBS. Campbell’s theory of myth is rich and complex, but the notion I want to pull out of it is fairly simple: that the power of myth derives from its ability to use metaphor to “translate” a common human culture and values and set them in a sense-making story that gives them significance or meaning.

For Campbell, it was crucial that while the individual myths or stories of human culture were incredibily hetrogeneous, at a deeper level they shared a common structure, revealing common human needs and concerns.
Robert McKee has borrowed from Campbell’s thinking for the architecture of his famour story seminar for screenwriters (which is now attended by a much wider cross section of people, including media producers and brand managers). In June 2003, McKee’s ideas about story-telling were featured in the Harvard Business Review. What is most important in McKee’s thinking for my purposes is his notion that stories are designed, and that the purpose of their design is to create a drama (a story that matters), to explain the role of characters (how we each advance the story), and that their effectiveness at these things turns on their resonance with the “deep grammar” of culture.

Brands, then, are myths (stories) which create a drama (a story that matters) that help us make certain kinds of decisions (why choose this over that).

Beyond the fact that I think “a brand is a myth” sounds cool, then, I think it is a useful way to think about brands, because:
1. it helps us understand what brands are made of and how they work

2. that helps us better understand both their power and their limitations

3. it helps us understand what kind of people make the best brand builders and brand stewards

4. it shows that brand strategy is a dimension of business strategy (if that still needed proving)

5. it helps us think about the best methods for doing brand work

One of the things that people who are smart about brands have in common is their frustration with reductive or just plain wrong-headed thinking about the concept of brand. They are often at pains to remind clients that the brand is not a name, a logo or a slogan. Brands are not reducible to the artifacts which are often involved in their expression.

Brands neither depict reality nor is their content made up of facts. That said, brands address reality. But how?

A brand is a myth (story) which creates an ethos (a way of living/character). Brands don’t reflect our reality, they make it up.

The next question is: do we make brands or do they make us? Tune in for Part 3.

One Comment

  1. Don wrote:

    You’re going down a path I went down last year with the concept of branding as living thing. To further expound on your understanding of Chomsky’s deep and surface languages, may I suggest checking into the ideas of tacit knowledge, as explored by Michael Polanyi. Even further, you may be interested in Stanislav Grof or Ken Wilber.

    Brand indeed exists in that deeper context, where the archetypes lie. In a way, that old saying that slumbering men dream of the gods while slumbering gods dream of man may be accurate. So it’s interesting in that we can simplify brand by saying “Brand is what others say about you.” We’re a reflection of our projections?

    A lot of newer customer experience marketing seems to focus on the customer as the Grail. In this, I agree, and I believe the heart of brand lies in loyalty to a cause.

    Guy Kawasaki said that the first and foremost goal of any organisation is to make Meaning. In this context, I believe it’s similar in nature to loyalty to a cause — that which can inspire the dramatic experience of the archetypes and symbolism you’re referring to.

    So at the root of all of this, is the drive to act as the hero does. This involves metamorphosis (the current golden boy that innovation and designthink has become), and being able to simplify the knowledge garnered from carrying the so-called Elixir back from the Belly of the Whale, back to the people.

    The natural brand effort is to create Light where before there was None. To use semantic scaffolding to add meaning where it may be lacking.

    The rest is just window dressing, no?

    Tuesday, December 5, 2006 at 1:31 am | Permalink

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