William Shakespeare, Mayor Rob Ford and the Future of Branding

Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World:

How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is a wonderful book, useful as a way of understanding the playwright, his work and his time. Perhaps more urgently, it is a way to understand the brand.

Here’s what Greenblatt has to say about theater before the advent of Will Shakespeare.

The authors of the morality plays thought they could enhance the broad impact they sought to achieve by stripping their characters of all incidental, distinguishing traits to get to their essences. They thought their audiences would thereby not be distracted by the irrelevant details of individual identities.

This sounds like the brand construction strategies of the 20th century, doesn’t it? All brands, even some of the very best ones, were constructed as if the message could have no subtlety or nuance. Branding, even by very gifted marketers, had an inclination to strip things out. Keep it simple. Stick to genre and formula. Say it loud. Say it often. This was the mantra of marketing.

The result was often brutish and ugly. I did an ethnographic interview not so long ago with a young consumer and we talked about brands. “Oh,” she said. “Most brands are like that guy at a party, the blowhard in the corner, who just keeps talking and talking, never letting anybody else get a word in edge wise. He’s fat and loud. He’s sweating. Everyone just wants him to leave.” Ah, I thought, this is what we get for shouting at the consumer from childhood on. The brand ends up looking a little like Mayor Rob Ford.

Formally, brands are supposed to be a representative of the corporation and the product or service the corporation brings to the world. But the hard sell has turned the brand into a shill artist, a creature who can be reckless, unappealing, and boorish. But of course we’re not surprised to find this brand in the company of gangsters in drug dens engaged in unbecoming conduct. These inflated, overstated creatures are bound to start throwing their weight around, hanging out in unsavory company, and getting up to no good.

Perhaps it’s time to think about brands the way Shakespeare thought about characters. Brands constructed in the old way are too obvious, too crude, too stupid to enter consciousness, let alone move someone to purchase. As Greenblatt puts it:

Shakespeare grasped that the spectacle of human destiny was, in fact, vastly more compelling when it was attached not to generalized abstractions but to particular named people, people realized with an unprecedented intensity of individuation; not Youth but Prince Hal, not Everyman but Othello.

Are we making brands with an “unprecedented intensity of individuation”? Not so much.

We are still too often making brands as brute. There was a time when this didn’t matter.

As long as the message got through to the consumer, the brutish brand was ok. As long as the brand registered in memory, it was forgivable. But times they are a changing. Our culture gets better, as evidenced best by the extraordinary developments on television.Consumers have become more sophisticated as everyone’s media literacy gets better. In the face of all those dire warnings that things were dumbing down, they now appear to be smartening up quite nicely.

This change marks a collapse of the boundary between the commercial message and the creative one. In this context, brands with the bluster of a Rob Ford are less and less welcome at the party. Indeed Rob Ford brands begin to consume more value than they produce. And when this happens the marketing message has to change. It must forgo repetition, hyperbole, shouting and brutishness. It must take on depth, nuance and touch. And this won’t change until the brand paradigm changes substantially, until we do for brands what Shakespeare did for Everyman. It’s almost as if the brand can’t find a place in the present day marketplace unless it is worthy of a place in contemporary culture. It can’t work as a marketing pitch unless it remains an entirely human artifact. It can’t be commerce unless it’s culture.

It took some 500 years for the revolution William Shakespeare set in train on the Elizabethan stage to finally reach the world of commerce. Are we ready?

the author

Grant McCracken

Grant McCracken is an anthropologist who studies contemporary culture. He is the author of several books including Chief Culture Officer and most recently, Culturematic. He is based in New York City, United States.