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The metaphors we use to think about things influence the way we interact with them and how we attempt to change them. If you think about a corporation as a giant machine then you compartmentalize yourself, become a cog in its wheels, and attempt to move it through force by identifying leverage points to build a business. If you think about a corporation organically, then you become part of an ecosystem in which you compete to find your niche, and you grow business through patience and cultivation.

The metaphors we use to think about advertising can be hard like a baseball that breaks through clutter to have impact in order to penetrate the mind of the consumer; or, it can be the soft sell of an emotional experience that slowly unfolds to reveal a moment of truth that seals a love bond with the consumer.

We use many different metaphors to think about brands, those abstract constructions of the mind that stand above the physical products or services we sell with advertising. No metaphor is perfect, for each is just a different mental model that we use to conceptualize mind stuff, any of which may be more or less appropriate depending on the business audience with whom you are trying to communicate. For the chief financial officer you might talk about a brand as a storehouse of value and describe it the way management consultant Peter Drucker did as an erstwhile commodity for which, as a result of advertising, you can charge a premium price. For the director of human resources you might talk about the brand as a community of customers who can be aggregated into a brand franchise through the bonds of loyalty created by image advertising.

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As a researcher trying to connect with creative directors I have explored a number of different metaphors for talking about brands. Once I asked the head of an agency who had risen through the creative ranks how he thought about brands and he described a brand as a kind of disco ball: a multi-faceted, reflective globe you can rotate over time in order to show different faces of the brand to the consumer. A senior account guy described a brand as like a movie star, since the job of advertising is to make ordinary products famous. I sometimes like to think of a brand as tree-like, where the job of each new advertising idea is to add another growth ring to the tree. Occasionally, to express the dynamism of the brand-building process, I might also describe brands with an Asian yin-yang symbolism, with the male yang principle of product positioning (a mechanical metaphor) rooted in creative opposition to the female yin principle of the brand image which must flower anew (an organic metaphor) with each new season of advertising.

Theater of the Mind

My favorite metaphor is to think about brands in terms of the theater of the mind. Theater is an apt choice because it allows us to describe a different universe of the imagination that we enter into when we watch a play or movie, or a good television commercial. The theater is a particularly useful framework for having a productive conversation with a creative director.

What are the basic elements of the theater? First, there is a stage of some kind—something that frames the audience’s experience. Second, there are one or more actors on the stage performing some kind of action. Third, there may be a few physical props that help facilitate the action or advance a storyline. In short, the theater can be described in terms of place, people and things. To these ingredients add the energy of imagination and whole new worlds of experience can be created!

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How can we use these creative elements to describe a brand? Let’s examine each of them in turn—what we call the 3 P’s, starting in the order that is the most familiar to the way we usually think about brands. (See figure 1.)

The Product

At the most concrete level a brand can be thought of as a “product”—either something tangible, such as breakfast cereal, or intangible, such as software. Because it is something we buy, we can think of a product as a prop that we use to facilitate our actions in the physical world, e.g. driving a car to get someplace, or to modify our experience of our inner world, e.g. through the effects of a pharmaceutical drug.

In rational terms we are used to thinking of products in terms of features or functional product attributes and their corresponding benefits, which address the need-states the product fulfills. We are also used to quantifying products in terms of their value, which is calculated in terms of the trade-off between product quality and price.

Products are defined in terms of their relationships with other products: what are the advantages of this product versus that competing product? Managing the perceived relationships to competing products is what marketers mean when they talk about “positioning” a brand.

But products can also be thought of in more dramatic terms. When we see the product in advertising we see it reflected in many facets of the creative disco ball: a cereal being created from healthy grains, a mom serving cereal to a skeptical child, flakes floating down from the box, milk pouring into the bowl, the spoon lifting it towards the hungry lens of the camera, then the bite and beaming smile of a happy child. The dramatic progression of such product shots represents an imaginative rehearsal of the real behavior the advertiser wants the consumer to engage in. In the mind’s eye, a virtual consumption event has been created that is filed away in memory as a positive experience of the brand—a memory that, through the tricks of the mind, is treated as a no less real brand experience than actual physical interactions with the product.

The Persona

Every brand must present a human face to the world, because human beings are fundamentally interested in other human beings, not things. Brands must project unique personalities, attitudes and a sense of style for users to identify with or aspire to. Apple computers are cool and hip. IBM is powerful and mainstream. Google is smart. Microsoft is relentless. McDonald’s is happy. Disney is innocent and fun. Victoria Secret is not so innocent yet fun.

Like politicians appealing to different constituencies, brands must follow the script their particular audience is interested in: some brands play to traditional values while others project change and modernism. Brands that stay true to their characters accrue a great deal of brand loyalty with their consumer audience and get chosen again and again at the point of purchase.

Yet maintaining a consistent personality and style is no small feat of brand management, as ad campaigns come and go and each new creative director wants to understandably stretch the brand in a new direction to keep it fresh and interesting to its audience. That is one of the reasons companies learned long ago the value of own-able trade characters like Mickey Mouse or Tony the Tiger or Mr. Clean or the Burger King king—it is easier to maintain a consistent image over time if the brand is personified as a continuing character in the advertising.

A serious actor seeks to avoid being typecast. Sean Connery wanted to be more than James Bond. Harrison Ford wanted to be more than Indiana Jones or Han Solo. In seeking out new creative material an actor is always on the lookout for a part that allows him to project a new emotional facet of his complex inner self—the more different a new part is from parts he has played before, the better. For that reason it is best not to make the mistake of thinking about the brand as if it were an actor in the little movies we call commercials.

The advertising manager must, like a casting director, focus on the role, not the actor, when casting their particular brand for the consumer’s interior theater. To understand what I mean by role, let’s think of it first in terms of the three primary roles that most of us have played within the basic family unit—and have internalized within our psyches: the child, the adult, and the parent.

Mickey Mouse is the archetypal child. Indeed, physically that’s the reason he looks the way he does. If you compare the physical appearance of the original Mickey, Steamboat Willy, to the mouse of today you will note striking differences. The original character was quite pointy and angular, skinny, with a small head relative to body size, and beady eyes—in fact, he looked like a rat! The Mickey of today is rounded and pot-bellied, with a large head relative to body size, and big eyes and a big smile in his face. Biologists have a term for these characteristics, “neotony”, which describes how infants of most mammalian species express distorted adult features to make them so lovable to their parents. Over time, market forces have shaped the Mickey Mouse of today in response to the role he plays for the Disney Brand, to convey a sense of fun and to evoke feelings of nurturing: now really, don’t you care about your child enough to take them to Disneyland?

It’s an ill-kept secret fact of family life that it’s the adults in the household that have sex, not the parents (no doubt due to Oedipal pressures). Therefore, if you are advertising a perfume brand, a sports car or Viagra there will be no mothers or fathers or children anywhere in sight.

To parents we sell household cleaning products, cake mixes, disposable diapers and life insurance. Homemaker and provider are parenting roles that we might regularly put on and take off as we exchange them with the other roles we play in our lives: friend, boss, expert, and jokester. Each of these might be a better fit for other products that we buy.

Archetype research into the mythologies of the mind—rebel, sage, trickster, or hero—is a key genre of research for identifying those dramatic roles that may be appropriate for your brand’s play.

The Place

When we read a novel, watch a movie, play a videogame, or go to the theater an essential part of the experience is that we are transported to a different place, separate from our everyday world. The very laws of the universe may be different in such places—magic rules the novels of Harry Potter; love lasts forever in Casablanca; a myriad of intelligent species populate the online game World of Warcraft; all the people speak poetry, not prose, in Shakespeare’s plays.

Similarly, the mythologized American West is where the Marlboro brand of cigarettes lives. The Green Giant lives in a Valley filled with fresh vegetables. The Keebler Elves bake cookies in their Tree. You can take in vistas of cyberspace through Microsoft’s Windows.

Places are containers where we store emotions. Home is where the heart is. We fight for our country. We still cheer for our college team, even when we’re eighty.

Places are storehouses of memories. Where exactly were you when you had sex for the first time? I expect you remember. In the nineteenth century people used to train their memories with memory theater, a method of associating names, ideas or abstract facts to be recalled with different physical places, such as the rooms in a house, so that when they moved through the house in their mind’s eye they would find the things they wanted to remember.

Place, therefore, is powerful, but frequently overlooked way of conceptualizing brands. Places can be spatial, temporal, or social. For advertising purposes they are usually metaphorical, not literal. If you want to sell a sexy new brand of shampoo, you might show a longhaired beauty walking down the street attracting looks as if she were strutting on a catwalk. If you want to sell a new brand of cutting edge technology you might show it displayed in a setting where it seems displaced in time, as if it just arrived by time machine from the future. Prestige, luxury brands frequently appear in high society social settings—but price-driven “anti-brands” can play downstairs against upstairs, like Suave Shampoo once did, by showing the brand in “backstage” settings where ordinary people deride the imaginary product differences rich people pay premium prices for.

Creating an own-able brand place can differentiate your brand in ways that help maintain focus in long-lived advertising campaigns. In the nineteen eighties Miller beer created a memorable brand place called “Miller Time”, sandwiched between work time and home time, a temporal space where you could have your own time to be yourself and enjoy a Miller with your friends. A generation later, Budweiser looked at the time continuum differently and created the Whassup campaign, which is based in part on the idea of “slacker time”—anytime, even when you’re hanging out and doing nothing, is a good time to drink a Bud.

Some years ago Coors created the Coors’ Light Beach, a campaign featuring beautiful young people frolicking in the sun and surf, listening to lively music and drinking their beer. The campaign was quite successful for a while, and researchers were soon asked to define for management, “Exactly what kind of beach is it?” Consumers had quite strong opinions, describing it as a “bar without walls.” In their minds this beach was governed by very specific rules of social behavior: it was a playground, not a hunting ground or pick-up bar; a place where you hung out with groups of friends, not a place where you paired off into romantic couples; it was daytime, not night-time; it was outdoors, not indoors; it was a weekend beach, like Venice Beach in California, not a destination beach, like a Club Med. A sense of place, therefore, provided a framework for thinking systematically about how to advertise the brand.

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Place can also be used to think systematically about how to extend a brand into new territories of the mind. To illustrate, consider the entertainment brand, Star Trek. (See figure 2) It has had five “stages” for performance since the show was created in the sixties. In the first Star Trek series, stories were set in a 24th century starship that went “where no man has gone before.” In the sequel the stage was moved forward in time to follow the exploits of the Next Generation of the crew. For the third show, Deep Space Nine, the stage was fixed in space, to a space station orbiting a wormhole. In the fourth series, Voyager, the space ship was translated across space to the other side of the galaxy where the crew wandered lost, searching for home. And in the current version, Enterprise, the brand place was moved backward in time, to the era of space exploration before the first series.

What’s on the Marquee?

The idea of multiple brand metaphors reminds us that there are multiple ways to identify the brand to its audience. The name, of course, is the most obvious. Non-verbal identifiers may be equally important, such as the McDonald’s golden arches, or the Intel “bong.” And a slogan might provide a recurring title to the movies that play again and again in the theater of the mind: Just Do It.

The Three R’s

To apply the theater of the mind metaphor of the brand to the development of brand building advertising, you should ask three simple questions:

1. What are the Rewards of the Product?

2. What is the Role of the Brand Persona?

3. What are the Rules (and boundaries) of the Brand Place?

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One of the oldest, most ubiquitous brands, Coca Cola, provides a good summary example. (See figure 3) According to one senior manager at the company, at the level of the Product, the taste of Coke is distinguished by the “burn and bite” you feel at the back of your throat when you drink it. In terms of Persona, Coke is for genuine, authentic “real people.” And in terms of Place, Coke operates on the three planes of human: it is refreshment for body, mind and spirit.

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References

Morgan, Gareth, Images of Organization, Sage Publications, 2006

Zaltman, Gerald and Lindsey Zaltman, Metaphoria, Harvard Business School Publications, 2008