The Blog

The Road to Somewhere: What the Future of Branding Has in Common With Tony Stark, Charles Revson and Archibald Leach

We all want to live better, fuller, richer, more complete lives. We don't want to live by half measures, be Some Kind of Schmuck, Average Joe or Journeyman.

A 'Human Truth', our 'Human Condition': we aspire to dream big and chase those dreams. We want to be in control, take control, master our own destinies, shape our own narratives.

To almost all of us, all of the above sounds all good - because being all you can be is a highway to happiness, a smooth blacktop gun-barrelling towards that perfect sunset.

And here's the thing: I think brands and advertising, in some small way, can help us on that road. Yes, I really do. Only first, we need to drop the "advertising" label and call it something else.


You see, "advertising", the verb, by dictionary definition does itself no favours.

to advertise - the verb

to call attention to something, in a boastful or ostentatious manner, in a public medium to induce people to buy.

Ostentatious. Boastful, these are not particularly likeable qualities. These are not the kind of human traits we seek out in others, with a view to then making them our friends.

Advertising, by definition, is INEFFECTIVE communication, because it's so unlikeable.

But let's flip it. Instead of "boastful and ostentatious"... let's consider any experience or encounter that feels tailored to us and our needs... or any message that demonstrates a benefit to us, that (crucially) puts us at the centre of the universe and in the driving seat.

When advertising truly knows its audience and places a brand in the context of its audience's needs, it ceases being advertising "by definition" (while suddenly wielding enormous power to persuade, create desire and want).


Now, "consumer-centric messages" is nothing so new. The finest Madison Avenue output of Don Draper's day observed the truth that successful advertising must make its appeal to human truths, to human wants.

However, 50 years on, in a world gone digital, the 'brand form' has newly evolved. Social Media Brands are so successful, very simply, because they let us build the idea of 'The Me I Want to Be'. They allow us to chronicle and edit an online self that conforms to the more idealised and satisfying versions how we wish to see ourselves.

In this Digital Age of ours, "media" has gone from mass to personal, and not just personal, but intimate and expressive. "Media" is a thing of self-expression and social affirmation and lifestyle curation.

Digital brands, social media brands, are potentially the most narcotic and charismatic evolution of the brand form - and not because of what they say about themselves - but because of what they allow their users to say. Digital brands take a back seat, rather than trying to hog centre stage. Ironically, brands today become successful by letting their consumers be "boastful and ostentatious'. And physical brands are quickly learning from their social media successors.

Consider a successful physical brand like Nike. Nike has gone native; has become a digital native, in order to survive. The Nike brand is no longer selling running shoes. The business sells running shoes... by building a brand world that orbits the consumer, in the form of Nike+, which is all about making it easier to live and express a 'Just Do It' lifestyle.

Consider the ever-expanding gap between Sony and Apple. Sony still try and sell hardware. Apple sells a "lifestyle ecosystem" of software and hardware that looks to provide a cooler, hipper, somehow "more fun" and more creative world for people. Love or hate Apple (and for most it's the former), but Apple shows genius for creating covet-able products that become part of a bigger, equally covet-able "Think Different" world - even if that world is largely illusory.


Advertising has always been about selling The Dream. Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, acknowledged that he manufactured cosmetics... but sold hope. In acknowledging that so many of us aspire to a life more remarkable, we're seeing brands become ever-more-imaginative dream weavers.

This Spring we saw Audi adopting Tony Stark, "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist" as its brand ambassador. The new Audi R8 we learned: "engineered for Iron Man". Audi's strapline, "Truth in engineering", but with an aspirational allure borrowed from the world of superhero make-believe.

Without superhero assistance, but in similar sentiment, Jaguar recently launched its new F-Type by asking, "How alive are you?" and telling us, "It's your turn".

Brands - physical and digital - are at their best when they put us in that driving seat, when they invite (and even better empower) self-narration.

An interviewer once observed, "Everybody would like to be Cary Grant". To which Grant replied, "So would I." No one knew better than Grant that he'd have likely had a very different career, had he not ditched Archibald Alexander Leach.

Today's Revson-shrewd brands know that no one wants to be Archibald Alexander Leach... and that even Cary Grant didn't start out as Cary Grant. He had to build that particular edifice, same way we all do. And brands are becoming tools that help build those edifices.

Where mobile technology is now augmenting our reality, advertising is (more than ever) exaggerating our reality, blurring the boundaries, inviting fiction in, and (crucially) putting us in the driving seat. We're seeing advertising collide with a kind of hyperbole. In mathematics, "hyper" is used as a prefix to denote 4 or more dimensions - and advertising is encouraging a fourth dimension to take shape, where brands and consumers join in co-creation.

"Advertising" still needs a new definition, and it's not "hypertising", but one thing is for sure, brands can help in our road to somewhere. Happy motoring.