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From myths to realities: developing icons for the times

budweiser bottle

Brands become icons when they offer compelling ‘myths’. 

In a nutshell

  1. Context: 20th Century brands built iconic status by addressing deep tensions resulting from societal shifts, with cultural expressions people could use to build, or maintain their identity.
  2. Opportunity: Today, with people willing to partner with brands to change their lives, the opportunity for brands is to not just smooth over tensions with content, but resolve them by offering transformative experiences.
  3. The way forward: This requires developing system responses to peoples deepest needs, like businesses currently do customer needs. Starting by mapping out the experience in an Executional Vision – a proof of concept picture of a multi-faceted experience that can deliver transformation.  Thus replacing the quest for the big idea.

A myth is a specific type of story that can help groups of people in society ease tensions they feel in their collective lives. The deepest of which are caused by disparity between what a nation celebrates, and the average person’s reality.

Take Budweiser, in the 1980’s ‘Bud’ was iconic because it offered a myth to smooth over tensions felt by non-elite working class when the labour market was moving to services. Bud championed working men with a worldview that skilled artisans, not Wall Street, will revive the economy - proclaiming “This Bud’s For You”. And again, in the 1990’s, when regular men had entirely lost faith in the belief that their work would ever return to be an admired, secure calling – Bud did not miss a beat – the famous Whassup?! commercials with a new myth. These ads showing non-elite men finding the kind of intimacy and respect among close friends that professional class men would envy (and did).

These two campaigns together make a compelling case study for Cultural Branding, the discipline developed by Douglas Holt. While TRA believes the methodology is essential to uncovering cultural tensions that can reveal opportunities for iconic branding, our point of view is that today Cultural Branding doesn’t go far enough if the final output is only myth (stories). We know people today want and need brands to partner with them and help transform their lives.

We should consider where Bud’s target is at today; that he is part of the same group of non-elite working men who helped vote in Trump as their potential saviour; and that while the myths Bud developed may have helped regular guys feel better about themselves for periods of time, they were also just that – myths, true in subcultures but not the reality for the masses.

Bud could well employ a similar strategy for working men today focused on the skilled artisans subculture, but go one step further – from myths and stories honouring working men as skilled artisans, to myth extending into experience that creates that reality for more working men – connecting them with the skilled artisan subculture, engaging their own skills and passions, and changing their lives through it. 

Iconic branding in the age of the experience

Culturally influential brands such as Budweiser can and should play this kind of bigger role – one that goes from only offering myths that temporarily smooth tensions, to transformative experiences that over time resolve them, leading to different realities. Myths are still required, but when they are not used to provoke action and connected to experiences that transform, they are really only a superficial nod to the customer’s identity tensions – at a time when people want to change and brands can offer much more than content.

While at risk of sounding somewhat woolly, the transformative experience is the natural next step in the experience economy. However, where in the experience economy “the value is in my ability to tell the story of it”, in the transformative economy “it’s in my ability to live it”. The logic for brand owners for thinking in transformations is that they are the one thing that cannot be commoditised. Transformations are by definition about going on a journey, they are long term systems based on data, and require brands and people to genuinely partner to achieve mutual benefit.

The question is, how to build these transformative experiences and take people on these journeys? It doesn’t mean doing away with the great mythmaking/storytelling of cultural branding, but this needs to be one part of a joined-up system response. TRA sees two new steps after research and strategy, and before launch, to develop such a response.

"An Executional Vision is a proof-of-concept picture of the brand experience. Not the execution, but the vision for it."

Develop an Executional Vision

If the intent is to move into the transformation economy, developing an Executional Vision is the essential first step after strategy. An executional vision is a proof-of-concept picture of the experience. Not the execution, but the vision for it, it walks the fine line of tangibility and flexibility – a framework to be tested and a canvas to paint the detail on.

Similar to a customer experience map, the executional vision is the visual representation of the journey people need and the brand can provide. It shows the participant’s perspective from the beginning, middle and on-going (rather than end, recognising that like Nike+ we are aiming to create a system of enduring value). Their key interactions, triggers, as well as the insights behind them that will drive engagement and behaviour. Upon seeing the Executional Vision, you see practically the ‘from’ (current state) and ‘to’ (future state) and how core components of branding (content, experience and product) can work together to deliver this transformation. 

In this sense, it is linked-up strategic ideas behind the ideas but not the executional ideas themselves. For example, from the insight into the identity tension, what would be the core idea of a content brief to provoke engagement with the experience? This is the level of detail in the Executional Vision. It also gives a sense of the various executional partners that will be required to deliver the experience e.g. who would be the best director for that particular content brief?

Developing the Executional Vision requires recognising that individual ideas on their own have limited potential unless, like bricks, they are cemented together in the right way. For this reason, developing the Executional Vision must supersede the quest for ideas, although it may well include some that have been developed further than others for the purpose of tangibility.

It’s easy to think in individual ideas, quick wins, looking for the silver bullet. But this self-perpetuating cycle prevents developing the kind of deep value that is possible to create for people today. It’s more of a challenge to think systemically, to connect dots, and know people’s lives ‘in full’ and build experiences of multiple ideas that combined can have a true impact – however, this is where value today lies and what the Executional Vision can inspire.

What next?

After developing the Executional Vision, the participants themselves need to be brought into the process. This is about understanding what the components of the vision add up to for them. It should be shown to them in a very functional way, to then dig for the meaning. As well as gaining the detail, inspiration and knowledge of success factors that will be required to inform the various creative briefs to the array of executional partners needed to move into execution. This step most closely resembles human-centred design, only applied to deeper more existential ‘life’ questions and the development of new systems outside the boundaries of the firm.

It is this yin of bringing human-centricity to design solutions, to the yang of cultural insight to uncover tensions, that creates an exciting space between two competing schools of thought.

The latter, championed by creative agencies, says the time is now for brands to have a point of view, to get under the skin of culture and be activists in it. While the former, championed by design firms, says let’s get close to the consumer and develop unrivalled experiences for them. The most impactful innovations on people’s lives and business will likely combine the two.

Tim Gregory
Strategist at TRA

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