Our Executive Creative Director Jonathan Rouxel said something quite arresting to me the other day:
The best strategies [in advertising] are built on, and powered by, a cultural tension. As with tectonic plates and especially weather patterns, collisions and tensions of conflicting forces produce powerful currents – from tornadoes and hurricanes to gulf streams. When a strategy is built on these current, great ideas burst out of them.
In addition to the spectacular use of metaphor, this was an insight worth chewing on. It took me back to something I learned in screenwriting class as an undergraduate: that every good story needs a conflict. Without conflict or tension, there’s nowhere to go. You just have a Hallmark card – nice sentiment, but nothing that provokes real emotion.
And a brand, we have all come to learn, is like a character living a story. That’s why we talk about “brand values” and “brand personality”: personifying the brand and giving it utterly human qualities. Put another way, if the brand is an “it” or a “what”, then you’ve failed to make it relevant or compelling. A brand must be a “who”, through and through.
So, going back to Jonathan’s statement, what are some vivid examples of “cultural tension points” at the epicenter of brands? Many come to mind…
What was Toyota’s Prius, but the answer to a cultural tension around our increasing discomfort with combustion engine vehicles and their impact on our environment? What is Apple but our culture’s ringing answer to a deep and mounting inner conflict about the rise of machines and our potential enslavement to them? Ridley Scott’s sweeping “1984” spot was indeed a volcano rising from that tension. And Airbnb is arguably a brilliant resolution to the tension that travelers feel not only around the cost of hotels, but the sense of dislocation that comes with traveling to a strange city. “Belong anywhere,” the campaign beckons.
Finding the right tension point is easier said than done. It’s so easy to recognize it in retrospect, and to merely describe it historically, as I just did. It’s much harder, and more exciting, to search for that tension point with insightful tools, to meet with consumers and do ethnography, to map our own minds, to search our imaginations and behaviours for clues to a fault line where pressure is building a largely invisible place that is ready to erupt with ideas.
Right now, in this nearly surreal, contradictory, and yes, tense time in which we live, those of us who work with brands have an unprecedented opportunity to find tension points to exploit. In our physical reality, we may want to avoid these areas where forces collide, like the people who live in Tornado Alley or on top of the San Andreas Fault. But in the reality of brands, we should be actively seeking them out.