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The Dark Side of Brands


A couple of weeks back at that APG talk, I met an interesting chap called David, one of the very few who braved the Tuesday night to come out drinking afterwards. [Note to planners - You need to come out drinking more. That's how you meet the interesting people. Seriously, it was like pulling teeth. I know it was a Tuesday in January but that's no excuse. I may have to start some kind of booze, evening based analogue of the coffee mornings. Booze evenings.]

We had a chat and he told me about his theory of Sad-vertising, which I found very interesting. In an Admap article, and now on his blog, he posits that negative emotions are underutilised in advertising:

Sad-vertising spurns the convention of using upbeat positivity to stimulate trivial, fluffy emotions in the consumer. Rather it embraces a downbeat tone which flies in the face of superficiality, acknowledging that people, emotions and real life are a confusing mess of ups and downs, all blended into one and nonetheless enjoyable, meaningful and powerful for it.

David has already managed to get Eric du Plessis, of The Advertised Mind and Millward Brown, into the conversation - head over to Feel Anything to check it out.

When I spoke to David I mentioned his thinking resonates strongly with some ideas that my mate Adam, from Naked Down Under, has been developing [both Adam and David are trained psychologists - I suspect this is unlikely to be a coincidence].

Adam has been talking about the Dark Side of Brands as the next stage in the evolution of branded communication. To summarise, in the 1980s brands were all yang: superficial, aspirational, glossy and inauthentic: think  Pepsi, think huge logos.  In the 9os brands developed a more authentic voice, reflecting our values not our aspirations: think Dove, Innocent, Body Shop, Big Brother.

Now, brands need to embrace their shadows. Shadows are qualities deemed unacceptable and thus are usually hidden, by brands and by people. But if brands could tap into their shadows, they would allow consumers to express and normalise the negative feelings they all have, and thus build much stronger relationships with them.

To create stronger, robust, believable brands, we must turn to the dark side.

All of which brings me back to something Jon Steel said at the APG talk. Or rather, something he didn't say. He showed an example slide from a pitch document but didn't talk it through, that highlighted the fact that great brands resolve contradictions: Apple makes computers human, Persil makes dirt good, that sort of thing.

And this helps explain further why brands need to express their dark side. The dark side allows them the complexity required to resolve these contradictions. In fact, it is in the resolution of contradicitions that the role of brands may be seen to lie.

Brands function in the realm of myth. Myths are inherently complex and polysemous - this is why I fall down on the complexity side of the brand arguement. And the cultural function of myth, according to Levi Strauss who knew a thing or two about them, is to:

"provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction."

Life is full of contradictions. Brands, like myths, provide a metanarrative that helps people find meaning and thus resolve them.

Which is why we have Dark M&Ms.