Why the Right Brand Strategy Feels Like a Classic Screwball Comedy
You may have heard a brand is a promise of an experience, or a story, or a brand is a hero. You may have even heard it from me—I’ve found all these definitions apt at one time.
But if you look at how our culture works (and anyone with an interest in brand strategy must always have one eye focused on the culture), if you see how much fluidity and flexibility is demanded of most brands today (particularly those with a strong entrepreneurial streak), and if you understand how organizations and audiences communicate key brand goals like affinity and ambassadorship, you’ll see why I’ve landed where I have:
A brand is a story that an audience and an organization tell for, and about, each other.
It’s a strategic lens centered on mirroring, mutuality, and interdependence. And it goes far beyond the idea of a brand “conversation”—a word that too often cloaks what is really a one-way relationship, and has been overused so much when talking about brand that it’s become as toothless as a “learn more” button on a banner ad.
All brands, I believe, are a sum total of three elements: identity, agency, and tribe. For the most successful brands, each element reflects an audience-organization relationship that’s in a perpetual motion of reinforcement and reinvention.
Let’s break it down. The organization doesn’t just confer a sense of identity on the audience; the audience should feel that it has the ability to help continually redefine the identity of the organization, helping keeping its image and sense of self compelling and relevant for new generations. The same is true for agency: ideally, audience and organization are constantly helping one another discover that a shared core purpose or value or belief actually offers new capacities to act and make a difference in the world. When identity and agency are valued for their ability to change, the result is a sense of tribe that embraces evolving and growing as well—one that includes more than it excludes.
So why is this like a screwball comedy? You’ve come this far with me, so indulge me a few paragraphs more.
I’m a huge fan of what the philosopher Stanley Cavell calls “the comedy of remarriage”—those wonderful screwball films, mostly made in the 1930s and 40s, that open with a hero and heroine who were once a couple but are now estranged. The rest of the movie is spent getting them back together—a journey that ultimately results in them becoming wiser about themselves and each other and more tolerant of the other’s foibles. They arrive at the ending on more equal footing and more in love than ever before. Writing on Cavell for the London Review of Books, Geoffrey Hawthorn described these moves as showing us “the conceptual puzzle of being one within two.” (The only downside is poor Ralph Bellamy ends up getting dumped.)
In many of these comedies, there is a moment when the temporarily estranged couple is coaxed or just wanders into telling a story from their once-shared past. Forgetting their current enmity, they fall into a wonderful rhythm, reinforcing and embellishing, correcting errors in detail or chronology only because doing so makes the story even more vivid to them. One of them smiles dreamily, savoring the words as the other advances the narrative. It’s clear to anyone watching this scene that the story is not just an anecdote or a hard fact of history: it’s a story they’re telling for, and about, each other. And it goes to the heart of why we want to root for them.
A love that’s strengthened by repartee: That’s what every brand should strive for.