According to Laurence Vincent, what separates legendary brands from the rest is their narrative – the legends, the myths that accompany these brands throughout their existence. Their history, their private folklore, their ups and downs, their heroes.
What makes a brand mythical is, essentially, the Myth.
A myth, in its essence, is a third order of signification – derived from, and preceded by, denotation and connotation: “The connotation of the Sign becomes the Signifier of the Myth,” says Elliott Gaines. It is an extended metaphor that aides us to comprehend our own cultural experiences. In fact, according to Roland Barthes, myths are no less than the guidelines of our understanding, the prevailing beliefs in our culture. The “American dream” is a myth, which has shaped the mindset of a baffling portion of Westernized cultures. The notion of fairness of the judicial system; the expectation that “good will prevail”; the idea that “you will find true love” – these are all ideologies that we recognize and in which we believe. Myths naturalize cultural particularities: they take prevailing traditional notions and objectivize them; they make prevalent morals, beliefs and attitudes seem normal and rational; they “transform history into nature,” in the words of Barthes.
Kevin Roberts, in his book “Lovemarks,” has systematized the conversion of a trade mark into a “lovemark”, by describing a list of metamorphoses of the rational basics, which build a brand, into mythological elements:
- Information becomes connection (relationship).
- Recognition becomes fondness.
- Wide application becomes personal.
- Story becomes love.
- Promise of quality becomes a touch of sensuality.
- Symbolic character becomes iconic.
- Certainty becomes saturation.
- Statement becomes history.
- Characteristics become enigma.
- Values become spirit.
- Professional character becomes commitment to creation.
- Advertising becomes idea generation.
While Roberts analyzes what a brand needs to achieve, in order to become a “lovebrand”, he reaches the overall idea of “statement becomes history,” rational becomes cultural, connotation is built upon denotation, which is but the initial impetus for creating a narrative. Once this is achieved, maintained and reinforced, the narrative eventually grows into myth, essentially forcing the cultural element to incorporate normality, reaching a third level of signification, thus achieving mythological status. Hence, statement becomes history, which, in turn, becomes a new, undisputable statement.
Let us take a look at an Apple product: the extremely popular (at the moment of this writing) iPad. On a first order of signification level, it is a hardware product, a computer tablet. It is one of many hardware products available on the market today that consumers can choose from. The connotation it bears is that of lightness, ease of use, mobility and connectivity. It is the go-to product for on-the-go professionals, or people who desire to dispose of a quick and easy way to communicate and reach sources of information at all times. However, on the third level of signification – the mythological level – this product is loaded with the legendary status of Apple, the air of creative extremes, an embodiment of Maslow’s final tier – self-actualization. This is no longer just a useful product; rather, it is a self-identification instrument, a tool that allows its owner to declare him- or herself intelligent, creative, elite, cool.
The fairy tale that is Apple is the basis, upon which this strong brand presence is built and which, in turn, has led to such extremes in customer loyalty. The Apple (and Steve Jobs) story possesses all the elements of a fairy tale. Analysis of fairy tale structure and function, described and developed by Propp, Levi-Strauss and Greimas, suggests that there exist concrete narrative themes, actions and actors (actants). These basic elements are set within the story in three main binary oppositions: subject-object, sender-receiver and helper-opponent.
The subject is the hero, the one who is on a quest, trying to achieve (reach/find) a goal – the object. In the Apple story, and according to its legend, the subject is Steve Jobs, and the object is changing the world.
The sender is the one who sends the object; in this case, this is an inanimate entity – American culture (which also is a myth in and of itself and, in this case, represents a necessary pre-requisite for the narrative), since the object is an ideal, a purpose, rather than a material item.
The receiver is the destination of the object; Greimas argues that the subject and the receiver are, essentially, one and the same, which is clearly the case in this particular instance of the fairy tale – Apple (and Steve Jobs).
The helper is an actant, who assists the subject – here that would most likely be Steve Wozniak, the other notable founder of Apple, or companies and other external forces, that have, one way or another, aided Apple in its quest.
And finally, the opponent is the actant who attempts to interfere and hinder the subject’s quest; in Apple’s legend that was IBM, at first, and later on – Microsoft, Google, Samsung, et cetera.
The main construction of the fairy tale mimics basic sentence structure, where we have a subject-verb-object sequence: Steve Jobs (Apple) achieves success (in changing the world). Evidently, an oppositional force exists, exhibiting a “frictional” force in a vector, reverse to the subject’s action: IBM achieves success before Apple (i.e. IBM starts competing with Apple). This is a basic binary opposition where we have a protagonist opposite an antagonist.
Fairy tales are generally simple: characters are one-dimensional, possessing only positive or only negative traits; actions are clean and unidirectional, without any meandering. Barthes explains in his “Mythologies”:
Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact. If I state [a fact] without explaining it, I am very near to finding that it is natural and goes without saying: I am reassured. In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions… Things appear to mean something by themselves…
This simplicity, depicting the hero as inherently good, while the villain is undisputedly evil, comes out of fairy tales and myths, and transcends into our perception of the events surrounding us. When we observe, or are part of, conflicts, we resort to this basic binary opposition, which is rooted deep within our perceptions, as it is one of the ideologies that we believe in, derived from myth-borne naturalization. In every conflict, in which we sympathize (and identify) with one of the opposing sides, we unconsciously apply this paradigm to our perception of the situation and side with whomever we perceive to be “the hero” of the narrative.
Naturally, the definition of the villain is clearly dependent on the stance and point of view: to some, Coca Cola is the hero, while to others it is clear that Pepsi is the protagonist – it all depends on the direction of the narrative’s vector that we choose to follow. Brand opposition takes place within a frame that is different from that of a fairy tale – it does not usually come with predefined role designations for the actants and the consumer (the observer) is free to assign them as he or she pleases.
A brand fares well if it nurtures its fairy tale. However, if its story remains passive in the past, and its narrative is based mostly on its legend(s), it may be faced with losing its legendary state. Strong brands, international or local, have been known to lose their vital force, while others keep growing strong.
One main characteristic of brand virility is the fact that these brands constantly perpetuate or re-invent their fairy tale. Essentially, this is what J.C. Larreche dubs “momentum”: “Momentum accumulates energy from its own success and provides ever-increasing acceleration for firms smart enough to build and harness it.”
Should the antagonists be defeated, the brand will re-populate their empty space with a new villain: once Apple outran IBM, it clashed with Microsoft (and later, on other fields – with Google and Samsung). Should the goal be achieved, a new goal must be set; or rather, should the brand get too close to achieving its goal, it will “inflate” or shift it, once again turning it into a “dream” that it (and its loyal consumers, by means of empathy!) have to strive to achieve: once Apple had created a best-selling consumer product that changed the world (by all means, the iPod and iPhone changed the landscape of personal electronics, the way we interact with our personal computers, the way we listen to music, the way we communicate, etc.), it gracefully entered a new niche – tablet computers – and once again set the mythology pendulum into motion.
Naturally, the new niche comes with brand new villains.