Greatest Marketer Of All Time? Who it is may surprise you

8th December 2011

In my thirties, I followed politics and read The Economist. Facts were my way of knowing the world. I always knew what was happening in Malawi – and not just that nation’s adoption policies for gap-toothed celebrities.

In my forties, I find myself moving towards culture as a means of understanding the world, and why people do what they do. In the presence of mind-numbing complexity, culture is a simplifier. It talks to the essence, often employing analogy and metaphor to do so. It is this quality that makes of poetry, music, literature and art such powerful elements in understanding our human condition.

Being curious, I tend to go narrow and obsessive when engaging with culture. That is to say, there are weeks when I want only to read and be consumed by one single author or artist. In these moments I want it all – there is never enough to discover.

Jane Austen has felt the heat of my interest. I believe I could recite almost all of Elizabeth’s confrontation with Lady Catherine de Burgh, that high-camp battle of wills which lies at the denouement of Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s two pages of verbal spark are more satisfying to me than the complete works of John Grisham. In truth, this is an unfair assessment. I have only read two of Mr Grisham’s novels, but figure I could sketch all the others if given their titles.

Oscar Wilde, at one stage, commanded quite a bit of my attention. I recall feeling so moved by De Profundis, his excoriating love letter written from prison, that I organised a weekend of drinking with friends in London, centered wholly around the moment of his downfall.

We drank in the bar of the Cadogan Hotel, and I spent a night in the very suite of that hotel from which Wilde was arrested on 6th April, 1895.

What is it about visiting the site of a significant occurrence which creates such a visceral experience? I am sure Wilde’s spirit hovered above me as I slept off my drunken stupor.

And then there is Vincent van Gogh. My reading of ‘The Yellow House’ – an exploration of Van Gogh’s nine-week artistic extravaganza during Gauguin’s visit to Arles – was a complete revelation. Some of the greatest works of 19th century art emanated from that particular sejour in 1888 (as well as that famous incident of ear-cutting).

Van Gogh’s work is, counter-intuitively, rooted in the masters, in philosophy and science. Although its manifestation is fresh, there is a profound sense of knowledge and thought throughout. His originality was, as is often the case, crafted on the shoulders of giants.

In one of his many hundred letters to his brother recounted in the book, I recall that Vincent evaluated the merits of the great artists in the history of civilisation.In considering the genius of all men and women throughout time, he considered Jesus Christ to be the greatest artist of them all.

His reasoning was captivating: Christ was a flexible and imaginative story-teller who made the complex simple, through employing analogy.

I am often struck by how analogy also helps us in the act of brand building and marketing. We are, after all, prosthelitisers of a different sort. We too trade in parables. Metaphor brings understanding to the abstract by linking a hypothesis with a reality.

I recall hearing that Branson built his Virgin brand in the early days by explaining its meaning in two words: Robin Hood.

In attempting to better understand the complexity of what brands represent for consumers, I often use analogies to help reach the essence which lies beyond complexity. The emotional essence of a telephony brand captured in the term ‘blood brothers’; the meaning of Kerrygold butter in dairy captured in the title ‘Zeus’; investing a search engine brand with wily passion by naming it Firefox.

In marketing, we engage with complexity and then lift it up, to its intuitive and simple essence. Artists have used analogy for the longest time to drive home meaning.

Analogy is a powerful conceptual tool, and has an important place in the marketing Bible too.


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