“All the world’s a stage” states Shakespeare in “As you like it”.
But while the monologue continues to describe how man progresses from infanthood to death in seven stages, I will recast Shakespeare’s allegory in our modern consumer-oriented world.
Brands play two fundamental roles in our lives. The most obvious is that they help us make purchasing decisions. Our lives would come to a standstil if when faced with hundreds of varieties of breakfast cereal, or shampoo or deodorant, in a supermarket we were to evaluate each and everyone objectively. This lurking woe is thankfully minimised by our recognising a familiar brand among multitudes. We have come to trust its packaging, its colours and all of its elements to the extent that we wouldn’t wish any companion but that specific one.
However, this is only the functional and practical aspect. In reality, brands inform us as to who we are, how we should think of ourselves and how we should behave. As did Shakespeare and other playwrights, brands use marketing to create the stage within which we are to perform. They dictate the script we are to follow, inform us on our behaviour, on when to pause and how to pose.
The Merchant of Seattle
Coffee chains such as Starbucks have created a new stage known as the third place. It is neither home nor work. This stage is also meant to be slightly exotic, bringing Italy to the heart of Seattle, Halifax and Tokyo. It told us that within this space, we are to be creative and thoughtful. Bring a computer, bring a book and seat in such a way that if you were to see yourself through the windows, you would almost hold court.
As for the words of the dialogue we are to recite in this theatre, Starbucks publishes a list for us to use: macchiato, frapuccino, moccha, americano or venti. Be prepared to use these when your part comes in act I scene II. This is when the barista appears in the play and he may not understand what american or twenty mean.
What the barista will do though, is to formally introduce us to the play in the most dramatic and inventive of ways. Unlike most characters throughout theatre history who are given a name by the author, at Starbucks (like at Coca-Cola) we get to chose our stage-name and that name will appear on the cup; we have merged into the brand. We have become the main protagonist.
The illusion of the stage is so carefully crafted and powerful that we hardly remark that what we consume is rather different than what we say we consume; most of us buy and drink a larger quantity of milk than coffee.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Brands have decomposed every situation we might face during the course of a day and have recreated an alternate reality that we will eventually inhabit.
The IKEA catalogue for instance, is magnificent in its ability to suggest how we should stage our bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms. Each picture in the catalogue tells a story about who lives there. The actors are precisely positioned to suggest happiness and satisfaction with life. When you do not see anyone in the picture, we still know what has happened just before. The tactfully unkempt linen on the bed or the forgotten headphones on the sofa suggest that the owners are secure with their lives and can afford the occasional imperfection because they are in control and therefore so must we when if and when we buy from IKEA.
For those of us who want to don a heroic yet sophisticated costume, Moleskine is the answer. We could buy “sheets of paper that are attached at one end and used for writing notes” or we could buy a “legendary” notebook, one that might have been used by Hemingway or Picasso. Now, a piece of paper is not merely a support for ink to dry on but a springboard that enables each one of us to revolutionise culture and the arts.
The association with Hemingway is not casual, among other heroic achievements, he was a reporter in Spain during the Spanish civil war and wrote a play during that time.
Even when we wish to be free, the best way to gain freedom and be certain that we are free, is through brands. If we want “Freedom above all”, through not only motorbikes, but leather jackets and boots, Harley-Davidson has created a universe in which to escape the daily grind.
Riding a Harley helps us reconnect with the myth of the American West, a time when the frontier lay untamed and when heroic, solitary explorers braved all manner of dangers.
The Ingenious Hidalgo
We may never have heard of the nearing 50 year-old Alonso Quijano. His life had been unremarkable up to the moment Cervantes introduces him to us. The retiring Alonso becomes infatuated with chivalry books and decides to rename (rebrand in modern parlance) himself as Don Quijote. He has lost all reason and sets on to recreate the fictitious world conveyed by the books he has read. He now knows how to dress, how to speak, how to act and at last, finds a purpose for his life.
As chivalry books informed Don Quijote on his place and goal in life, so do brands inform modern man. They provide an essential service because without them we would not know who we are.