Roll Up, Roll Up

For the successful brand-owner, there is truly no business like show business, and brands that draw the greatest crowds know how to play to the galleries.
There’s No Business…

For those of us who are inclined to look at the world as matter-of-fact, the runaway success of certain branded products and services can come as something of a shock to the system. Under forensic examination, these same products and services seem to enjoy rewards out of all proportion to their modest achievements. They shrink beneath our cold and unsympathetic gaze. When seen alongside their more diligent and hardworking neighbours, they suffer by comparison. And yet, they delight in the favour of the marketplace. Their largely undeserved good fortune offends us, goes against the grain. It’s all that we can do to suppress a heartfelt cry of ‘It’s just not fair!’

But who ever said that the world is fair? And the world of the marketplace, in particular?

Viewed in such a harsh light, it’s true that the marketplace and the fortunes of the brands that thrive there can seem hopelessly lopsided. But let’s not forget that brands do not operate best in the unforgiving glare of the examination table. And people only rarely buy in such conditions.

Instead, the customer is drawn to the limelight, to that part of the arena where the brand comes alive and invites us to ‘Roll up, roll up, for the greatest show on earth’. For the successful brand-owner, there is truly no business like show business, and brands that draw the greatest crowds know how to play to the galleries.

Of course, there are brands too that shun centre stage and successfully tread the boards in more modest productions. But even these shrinking violets understand the value of setting the stage and the importance of make-believe in winning over the customer.

…Like Show Business

Now, the more literal amongst us may have grown troubled at this point. Talk of make-believe veers perilously close to lies, to falsehoods, to that which is untrue. Surely it’s the treachery of spin, the faking of credentials and the masking of intentions that brings trouble to the business world, and to the wider world that relies upon it? Oh, what a tangled web we weave, and all that.

But who said anything about practicing to deceive? The purpose of make-believe is not to conceal the truth but to reveal it in a dramatic way. For brands, make-believe works to show something of the core exchange between the producer and the consumer. You may not be my lord nor I your courtier; but you get my meaning when I talk of readying a place for you that’s ‘fit for a king’. And when you in turn tell me of ‘nectar from the gods’, I don’t reject your offer of a drink simply because I question its divine origins.

When I choose your brand, it’s because I want to join in the game. When two or more of us agree to play a game together, we quickly adapt to its boundaries and rules, even though these may be as arbitrary as chalk-marks on the ground or the conceit that makes me invisible each time I don a certain cloak. In an instant, our game is as far from matter-of-fact as you can imagine.

Of course, the world of make-believe that we conjure up must trace its origins back to something true in the life of the customer. Otherwise, it’s simply storytelling as entertainment (or worse, deception) and the customer is likely to grow disillusioned once the diversion has run its course.

In this way, brand-building is a feat of the imagination and the role of the brand-owner is that of showman calling out to the passers-by to step right inside for the show that’s about to begin.

The Cowboys, The Wrestlers…

If branding is about putting on a show, then who or what is the star performer? It may be the brand that steps centre stage, but the great players extend a hand to the customer to invite them to participate in the performance. In choosing the particular product or service, the buyer becomes a part of the drama that’s unfolding and plays a role that places them right at the heart of the action.

We see this most obviously at work for brands that can tell their story through the visual media but the same holds true for all brands in their exchanges with the customer. Consciously or not, the buyer picks up on the story that’s being told and takes their cue from the brand as to the part that they will play in it.

With a word or a gesture, or through pictures and sounds, the modern showmen invite us the orchard or to the wilderness or to the urban jungle and we immediately understand something of the drama that’s about to unfold. The brand sets the scene and our natural inclination to identify with one or more of the players in the production (usually the hero) does the rest.

…The Tumblers, The Clowns

If branding is about putting on a performance, then each aspiring brand-owner is faced with a number of key choices when they ready their brand to take to the stage. These choices centre around which story is to be told and how it will play for the audience.

1. Narrative Theme

The great brands enable their customers to explore one of the timeless themes of the human story. These can range from such sweeping concerns as love of family, freedom of expression or the search for lost innocence to the need for intimacy, patriotism or the kindness of strangers.

Whilst it can seem improbable that an everyday brand could help its customer grapple with such concerns, we need only watch or listen to a small number of typical advertisements to appreciate how effortlessly the brand can make one of the great themes its own.

2. Storyline

The brand-owner must then decide how the theme will be explored and which storyline best fits the customer’s understanding of the world. For example, this might be done by setting up a love triangle or sending out the hero to search for a holy grail. It could just as easily be a tale of paradise lost or brotherly envy that enables the brand to take the customer on an epic journey.

Again, this can seem far-fetched until we look about us and see how a producer can turn the choice of a simple packaged dessert or soft drink into a story of tyranny overthrown or paradise regained.

3. Leading Roles

Once the storyline is chosen, the brand-owner must describe the roles to be played in telling the story. Some of these will be obvious. Naturally, the most important role is the one that allows the customer to play the hero. Leading roles can include the parts of the ardent lover or the intrepid explorer or the guardian angel.

Once the leading role is cast, the next in terms of importance is that of villain. In fact, you could argue that in order for the story to have any real heft or significance, it must have a great villain, and therefore should be cast first. It’s not surprising that actors often describe the role of the blackguard as the most satisfying to play and say that the devil gets the best lines.

Other supporting roles enable the interplay between good and evil, darkness and light, and, for the purposes of putting on a show, are often only lightly drawn.

4. Stage Setting

When the storyline is chosen and the leading roles assigned, the brand-owner must then set the stage for the action that follows. Perhaps the epic tussle between cruel master and courageous slave is most memorably played out in the world of ancient Rome? Or maybe it has greater resonance when put in a classroom setting? Each of these landscapes carries its own echoes that might be used to dramatic effect when conjuring up a tale that’s older then time.

Costumes too can play their part in evoking another place and time, or signalling to the audience the part that the character will play in the drama.

5. Props

Of course, the actors in any great drama rely on a certain number of props in order to play their part more effectively. In such a context, the fountain pen may not only prove mightier than the sword, it might take its place completely. The paper contract becomes the embodiment of the bargain with the devil and when it’s torn up into little pieces, the audience cheers instinctively.

A simple prop can almost single-handedly set up the action that is to follow or resolve the staged conflict. Industrial designers in particular know the importance of the prop and often carve out the casing or packaging of a product or the vessel in which it’s carried in a way that suggests the part that it plays in the drama.

So Let’s Go On With The Show

But when the brand-owner has agreed the theme and storyline, cast the characters, set the scene and provided costumes and props, they must not forget that it is always up to the brand to give a great performance.

The product or service that underpins that performance must itself play its part so that the customer truly becomes the hero of the piece rather than an unwilling dupe in an elaborate but ultimately self-serving piece of theatre.