From flat to round: The new brand

The Most Interesting Man in the WorldThis post is cross-posted on Powered’s blog, The Engaged Consumer.

I draw a lot of parallels between marketing and storytelling, and I’m certainly not the only one. But recently, I’ve been giving some thought (mostly as a result of it being a hot conversation on the web) to the branding dimension of marketing, how it’s changing, and how it relates to the art of telling a good story.

Branding is to me most like characterization in the storytelling paradigm, the ability to develop convincing and compelling personalities with whom the reader (a.k.a. consumer) can identify and form a firm relationship. When you read a book, see a play, or watch a movie where characterization is done well, your emotions (love or hate) for the characters are amplified. The actors are full, their flaws and their strengths are detailed, and you can get to the point where when the story ends you want to see more of them. Good brands are like that – you feel like you know them, you feel like your association with them says something about you, and you want to see more of them.

A little bit of research into characterization rendered this from the Department of English at The University of Victoria that digs a little deeper:

A flat character (also known as a type, or a two-dimensional character) is defined by a single quality without much individualizing detail. A round character is a complex individual incapable of being easily defined. The degree to which characters are given roundness and individual complexity depends upon their function in the plot–some only need to be seen at a distance, like strangers or acquaintances, rather than known intimately.

I would argue that most brands today, and in the old world of marketing, are “flat characters.” A brand’s time with us has been hindered by our inability to choose with which brands we spend that time, as offline marketing channels feature a more-or-less complete lack of consumer control. As a result brand-marketers have had to keep branding simple. Every commercial break has been like a round of speed-dating where you have 30 seconds to get to know each of the brands involved.

That’s changing. With the web now a major force in marketing (and driven by consumer choice, spread primarily by word of mouth) consumers now have the means, and the ability, to choose to spend more time with brands they like. Brand marketers have to be ready for that. They must build “round characters” – the kind with depth, complexity, even flaws. This is why many people define the new branding as more conversational, more social. What they really are describing is the process of brands shedding their archetypical trappings and becoming more like real people.

Two good examples that go part of the way, but perhaps not far enough, are a couple of great efforts by Dos Equis and Palm. Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World” is a crusty old guy who looks like a cross between Chuck Norris and Antonio Banderas. He is surrounded by women, and described by phrases like “his blood smells like cologne” and “his personality is so magnetic that he is unable to carry credit cards.” He’s a great character for beer drinkers, myself included. You can become a fan of him on Facebook, and you can visit a website where he is featured, but you quickly get the sense that, well, he’s not really that interesting. While I give kudos to Dos Equis for some great ad spots and a slick website, opportunities are missed here for a deeper and longer-term engagement. A similar treatment was given to Claus, Palm’s metro-hip version of Santa Claus. Great character, but a bit flat for the web.

So what is a “round brand” on the web? Isn’t it a huge effort to develop all the backstory on your character for the few that are interested? Actually, it might be less work. By merely pulling back the marketing curtain and exposing the personalities and voices of the interesting people on your marketing team (through social networks and through your own socially-enabled website), you can contribute those personalities to your brand – rounding it out. Just look at what Dunkin Donuts is doing on their Twitter account. And it might be more than just a few that become interested, as word-of-mouth spreads at the speed of the web.

What brands do you think have character?

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