Myths, Symbols, and Advertising

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. It creates and defines our experiences. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are only a portion of what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges. The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she not only vanquishes the problem (the monster), but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. And they work because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches, and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing far too often engage at the superficial level of the mind. They sell features and, occasionally, benefits. While that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it does nothing for establishing a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create devotion. It certainly does nothing to turn a brand and its story into something iconic, something we share. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.



Inspiration and Venice

It’s been a while since I was in LA, and while I’m in Venice-Beach-4.jpg
Culver City today, my mind keeps being drawn to Venice Beach. In 1905, Abbot Kinney imagined a “Venice of America,” a coastal replica of Venice, Italy, down by the ocean in west LA. Of course he did; in a city built on dreams and dreamers, anything should be possible if you imagine it hard enough. And Kinney’s imagination was strong. Over 110 years later, many of the canals he built remain today. Like the rest of LA, the community has changed, is always changing. But that’s Venice, a very particular blend of sea air and freedom that stays in your skin however far away you travel.

What this city always reminds me of is the human ability to imagine other worlds and ways of being that don’t necessarily fit what people already see in front of them. Whether in Venice or anywhere else, you never have to stop imagining. The trick is letting creative inspiration come to you freely, whether you’re a chef, a banker, or a mechanic.

Shades of Blue: Marrying Art and Science

When chemists at Oregon State University4.jpeg discovered a brilliant new blue pigment serendipitously, they were not thinking about
creating art. But in a true art meets science moment, an applied visual arts major bean using the blue pigments in her artwork as part of an internship in Subramanian’s laboratory. This was also her first foray into the world of chemistry. Human history is filled with examples of innovation that occurred at the juncture of art and science, whether it’s as profound as Leonardo da Vinci’s explorations of anatomy or as mundane as liquid nitrogen ice cream. The point is simple – creative inspiration, whether in product development, advertising, or any other activity, is a matter of rethinking how we look at a problem.

Driven by CEOs that want to see ROI and engagement for every cent spent versus the equally valuable but often nebulous idea of “brand impact,” campaign and branding initiatives can be particularly challenging for CMOs today. Seemingly competing world views clash in large part because we take a binary position – it’s an either/or mentality where art and science are somehow in conflict. But is that fair or is it a modern construct? Are art and science so divergent or have we slipped into a lazy pattern of thinking.

Brands that want to take advantage of the intersection of art and science can start by simply acknowledging the fact that creative and metrics are not mutually exclusive concepts. By blending these two components of the creative process (and yes, science is a creative enterprise) and giving them a common goal to work tow
ards, we see focused innovation. We see new expressions of a common undercurrent.

Blending art and science is about collaborating in ideas generation: the inter-relationship is critical, you can’t have one thing without the other. Code or data are
just a bunch of numbers without the art. A visual masterpiece that produces no action is inspired but not inspiring. Science enables us to be more creative, and creativity allows us to get the most out of our data. But consider “the multiplier effect”. If either the data or creative are bad, the idea will fail. Or worse yet, if they work alone, without the cross-pollination that happens when different ways of experiencing the world come together, then the result can be flat out detrimental. It’s not one or the other that we need, it’s both. It’s not science plus art equals results, it’s more science times art, so a zero for either means failure.

That is where the interesting ideas are – at the intersection of exploration. The future is all about ideas connecting. Those who can bridge art and science will be in demand, will be powerful. If our ideas are going to change hearts and minds, then we need to find expression that can move freely between the boundaries of art and science.


Big Data vs. Insights

Over the last 20 years and the emergence of digital as a central element behind marketing and advertising, the industry had gotten smarter and smarter, creating an expanded set of new metrics: dynamic segmentation modeling, click-through rate, impression share, engagement rates, share of voice, bounce rate, etc. Even with these, it is still very hard to measure success in a clear, distinct way. With technology and consumer behaviors evolving as fast as they do, we face new issues every day, from different attributions models to cross-device measurements to connecting online activities to offline sales.

Out of this barrage of metrics grew the messianic promise of Big Data. Add to that the rise of business intelligence tools, and suddenly every agency, no matter the size, needs to have a data scientist. Don’t get me wrong, talented data researchers and masters of analytics have helped shape since the earliest days of advertising data scientists have revolutionized the advertising industry. However, the work has also left many in a situation where they are unable see the forest for the trees, let alone align metrics with creativity and business objectives.

As much as I love data, and I do love it, the whole Big Data movement has come with a hefty price tag. We have lost the ability to tell meaningful stories or insights in favor of huge reports filled with analyses and pivot tables. We have all the data can’t make sense of it in a new, dynamic, enlightened way that makes for advertising and marketing that make brands sing and become part of the broader social fabric. We can target the living hell out of people, but that doesn’t mean what we tell them resonates.

The data we use should help us to create the story, answer questions, and find moments of inspiration. Furthermore, the data should be a tool rather than an object we roll out in lieu of light-bulb moment. Too many agencies have fallen under the data spell and have forgotten to turn those results into stories that align to a client’s objectives and strategies. It’s like talking to a customer about product features (empty of emotion) without selling them on the benefits (the emotional hook).

Quite simply, we need to get back to delivering meaningful consumer insights instead of only data. Delivering insights means telling the brand what is going to happen in their industry, how something we did had an impact on their bottom line, or how we discovered something that will change the way they do business. Simpler still, an insight produces positive change, regardless of whether it comes from data, an interview, or a poem for that matter.


Love, Passion, and Attachment

Brand love is a rich concept in the field of consumer behavior. If the consumers love a brand, then sales volume of the brand will increase, as brand love gets transformed into brand loyalty. So, marketers should formulate appropriate strategy so that the brand has a strong emotional appeal and target customers fall in love with the brand. This matters because post-consumption satisfaction is likely to lead to emotional attachment with a brand over time with multiple interactions with love.jpgthe brand. It implies that cumulative satisfaction over a period tends to lead to an emotional bonding between consumer and brand. Satisfaction with the brand positively influences the feeling of love towards the brand. Individual romanticism and brand love, the romantic individual is highly emotional and seeks pleasure. So, brand love is also an attitude towards the brand, creating that sense of brand love we so desire. Brand love is highly affective in nature. As such, favorable brand experiences lead to love towards a brand over time. Favorable brand experience positively influences brand love. Individual romanticism and brand experience, romanticism enriches the experience-seeking process surrounding any act of consumption through subjective personal introspection. But is love enough?

Increasingly, you hear people talking about brand attachment, which has three central elements:

  1. Affection: (connection to the external face of the brand)
  2. Connection: (the brand’s alignment with my values)
  3. Passion: (desire for something specific within the brand)

When these three emotions are in play, it is highly likely that there is attachment. It may be an indirect influence on the brand, but it is a strong influence. More than brand loyalty, brand attachment almost becomes a part of you.

Whatever it is that attracts you to a brand to begin with most likely has to do with the way marketing and advertising have served up the content about that brand. It’s the first date, so to speak, when the brand catches your eye and makes you take notice.  This is the point in which you are then brought into what “virtuous circle of brand attachment.” There are three specific phases for the brand, which follow along this path. From each of these, it leads to the other:

Advertising & Marketing to –> Brand Attachment to –> Financial Performance

So, if I am so attached to a brand, let’s say Basil Hayden bourbon, then it follows that by my buying it repeatedly, their financial performance improves. Multiply that by millions of customers, and your bottom line is happily shored up by engaged, repeat customers.

The good thing for brands and companies is that people with strong brand attachments influence other people around them. So, in this sense, there are advocates that develop from their strong brand attachments. These fans or followers of the brand are not only becoming fans or followers to stay, they are also bringing their friends along, increasing the brand’s customer base. They are true brand evangelists, meaning their connection goes beyond brand loyalty. It builds a sense of devotion. It builds passion. The benefit to the brand is that these loyalists are more motivated to devote their time to trying to bring others into the fold. They defend the brand, degrade alternative brands, and devote more time to the brand through brand through engagement is social media.
The message is simple. Find out what your customers’ passions, connections and affections are. Target your marketing efforts with that in mind, and see how they follow by becoming attached to your brand – not just showing loyalty, but true attachment.



Finding Balance: Data, FIeldwork, and Creativity

There is perhaps nothing new about the ongoing battle between data and qualitative work, and the influence they have on creativity and design. Data is everything, creativity is dead vs. the argument that creativity is paramount and data is a distraction. Neither position is true, though there is some truth in each argument. The goal is to deliver insight that inspires creativity, regardless of the methods by which we gain those insights. The central need is to determine how data and inspiration work together to drive change.

As advertising, marketing, and design come to rely more on technology, we are forced to reconsider what constitutes creative quality. It also means being honest with ourselves and recognizing that data is not a panacea. It, like qualitative work, is part of a thinking process that helps identify the underlying story we need to divine and craft tools that inspire action. At times that can be found in the data alone, but more often it’s found among outliers. Without the two sides working hand in hand, we get half truths.

For marketers, nothing could better define both the essence and preeminence of creativity than empathy. We all recognize the pace of technological change and changing customer behaviors. And we all recognize there is tremendous opportunity in being able to derive greater targeting from the data we collect. But behavioral measurement shouldn’t lull us away from using the creative process to intuit what customers will experience, whether we’re trying to convince them to take an action or building a tool to meet a need. Data underpins everything, but meaningful success will come to those who can augment data with a deeper understanding of the audience. What role does symbolism play? What metaphors connect? How does the object we create make sense in their lives? These are the sorts of things we come to understand through deep immersion.

As an example, some years ago I did work on a medication used in treating schizophrenia. Based on the success rates and data collected about patient behavior, it should have been an easy product to market. However, the sales were flat. It wasn’t until we began examining the process of schizophrenia that we were able to tease out where the problems were. Access to transportation, difficulties with case management, distrust of the psychiatric community, and the role of friends and family all had a significant impact on how the medication was understood. This wasn’t the sort of thing you could get at via data analysis. And yet, using the two methods together allowed the team to develop creative work that resonated deeply and was targeted at the right place and the right time.

What we need to be doing is rebooting brand planning as a qualitative and a quantitative art. What designer, strategist, etc. tasked with building a tool or developing an engaging brand experience wouldn’t want to know a bit about how the audience for their art behaves? How they engage with content? How they engage with a device? But the trick is not getting caught up in the numbers at the expense of the human being behind them.

4 Noble Truths of Research

With the overwhelming number of methodological devices used to uncover insights, it’s easy to become lost in thinking about how and when to use them.  Not to mention why. This is even more true for our clients, who have neither the time nor the inclination to dig into the subtleties of how we do what we do.  What this means to practitioners of design or market research is breaking out the vast number of options into 4 simple themes.

Study and Learn

This is due diligence work.  It can be used to prep before doing more involved, primary research or once a campaign, product, etc. has been launched.  Any number of these processes can be used, depending on the scope of work, but they generally lack direct interaction with customers.  That being said, they are very helpful in understanding what you see when doing primary research.

Secondary Research

  • What it is: Review of published articles, papers, websites, books and any other documents to develop an informed view of a topic before digging in first-hand
  • Why we do it: This grounds first-hand research and provides background to stakeholders


  • What it is: Develop fictional, archetypal character profiles based on the behavior, life-styles, and cultural norms of real people
  • Why we do it: This brings the customers to life and fleshes out segments in a way that communicates the values, needs, and behavior of various target groups


  • What it is: Written scenarios describing the ways social and cultural norms and trends may shape customer behavior and reactions to a concept, company, or message
  • Why we do it: Predicting reactions to a concept and changes that might result from it helps the client understand possible outcomes and develop a long-term approach to their brand message

Historical Analysis

  • What it is: Developing a rich understanding of how an industry, market, segment, population, or practice have changed through time
  • Why we do it: This helps identify messaging cycles and consumer trends over time – emerging patterns can be used to uncover symbolic norms and project patterns of future behavior

Message Failure Cataloging

  • What it is: Brainstorm and list all the things that might go wrong in a branding effort, from messaging to strategy
  • Why we do it: This helps establish what components of a branding effort will contribute to successfully messaging to customers

Task (Cognitive) Analysis

  • What it is: Catalog all the touch points a brand has with a customer, leading from sensory input and reactions, to decisions and impressions, to the point of taking action
  • Why we do it: This helps determine what “sticks” with regard to informational and emotional needs, preventing a breakdown in the messaging cycle

Affinity Diagramming

  • What it is: Developing a map or design and messaging elements according to their various relationships (e.g. similarity, function, language, etc.)
  • Why we do it: This shows the connections between concepts, issues, and perceptual categories

Cross-Cultural Analysis

  • What it is: Use of published material and first-hand information to determine similarities and differences of meaning between cultural, sub-cultural, and community groups
  • Why we do it: This helps a team develop a complete understanding of the different cultural factors that will need to be addressed in various parts of the world, or even the community

Visual Archaeology

  • What it is: Using artifacts to document patterns of meaning as it is demonstrated in music, photographs, buildings, magazines, etc.
  • Why we do it: This gives a rich sensory explanation or societal and cultural norms that can be incorporated into a branding effort


This is where you find unmet needs, subtleties of behavior, patterns of consumption and all of that information that leads to breakthrough innovation and insights.  These are the most time intensive processes, but are the most powerful for understanding the right questions to ask and the right solutions to provide.

Proxemics (spatial analysis)

  • What it is:  Documenting how space and environments are used and understood in the cultural and psychological contexts
  • Why we do it: This technique is good for getting at what different groups associate with places – what does a dark room signify, what does the card section in a drugstore mean, what does the arrangement of furniture in a home signify?

Cultural Mapping

  • What it is: This is the tracking of how people and objects move through space over time
  • Why we do it: This process helps define high traffic areas and the impact images, obstacles, etc. shape spatial behavior

Material Culture Analysis

  • What it is: Look for and documents things in people’s lives, how those things derive meaning, and how they reflect the culture to which the owner belongs
  • Why we do it: It provides information about iconic imagery for a group, establishes what things are most important to them, and how they reflect meaning in daily life

Contemporary Archaeology

  • What it is: Examining evidence of use patters, wear patterns, placement, fabrications, and the organization of things
  • Why we do it: Like material culture analysis, this uncovers how artifacts and the environment fit into the lives of the customer, demonstrating values, beliefs, life-ways, habits, and the propensity for creativity

Social Network Mapping

  • What it is: Categorize the various relationships and communities of interaction within a segment and map their interactions
  • Why we do it: This is a excellent way to understand the different roles people take on at different times and the various relationship types with a group


  • What it is: Spend time with people (sometimes days or weeks), using participant observation to better understand the interactions, routines, cultural beliefs, and contexts of their daily lives
  • Why we do it: This is an extremely powerful tool for getting at the complexities of beliefs and worldview, finding connections and shared meaning so as to tailor subtle but extremely powerful brand messages

Rapid Ethnography

  • What it is: Spend as much time as possible engaged in participant observation related to a particular topic or group – a more streamlined version of full-blown ethnography
  • Why we do it: This is a great way to get a first-hand understanding of the habits, beliefs, rituals, and meanings people assign to a topic.  It is a good way to find associated patterns of shared meaning

Lexical Analysis

  • What it is: Cataloging and categorizing the specific words used in a conversation
  • Why we do it: This method documents the subtle differences people assign to different words, providing a more engaging, effective brand message

Observational Analysis

  • What it is: Similar to ethnography, but interaction between the researcher and the participants is removed – pure observation
  • Why we do it: This helps provide an understanding of what people actually do in context rather than them telling you.  This process may find it’s way into other methodologies

Guided Tours

  • What it is: Have participants provide a guided tour, showing the researcher what is happening, what it means, and how it impacts their lives
  • Why we do it: This helps people recall important information they may not normally be aware of and establishes a process of individual recall

Personal Inventory

  • What it is: Document those thing people say are important to them, having them explain what those things mean – this can be anything from an old picture to a favorite pair of socks
  • Why we do it: This helps uncover perceptions, emotional ties, values, and shared meaning, as well as activities and processes of use.

Narrative Analysis

  • What it is: Using story telling and narratives to uncover symbolic associations and “shared” memories people have about events, places, things, etc.
  • Why we do it: This is a good tool for determining how people construct memories and assign importance to events, people, and things

Photo Analysis

  • What it is: This is a process using a planned shooting exercise where photos are taken of specific activities, groups, things, etc.
  • Why we do it: This documents what meanings people assign to the subjects they are shooting, uncovering patterns of behavior, perceptions, worldview, subconscious beliefs, and inspirations


Once Exploration is done, this is the phase that should follow – it is the creative stage, where you have assumptions and hypotheses to work from.  These methods push to understand individual motivations and perceptions (not necessarily reality, but what people believe).  These are also good tools to use when you already have something tangible to work with, like product concepts or messaging campaigns.

Collage Building

  • What it is: Participants build a collage from images they provide or the researcher provides and arranges them to represent something meaningful and significant to a question
  • Why we do it: This provides visual association with abstract or complex issues, demonstrating perceptions, worldview, and  symbolic and iconic messages

Draw It

  • What it is: Participants express a belief, experience, or concept by drawing or painting it
  • Why we do it: This provides a highly expressive and emotionally strong process for getting at people’s thought, beliefs, and subconscious associations

Act It

  • What it is: Participant role-play in a scripted or adlib scenario, acting out what they believe about an issue or how they believe the world works
  • Why we do it: Like drawing, this provides a highly expressive and emotionally strong process for getting people to express their thought, beliefs, and actions

Outlier Interviews

  • What it is: Identify and interview people who represent the far ends of the spectrum of knowledge or interest in the
  • Why we do it: Talking with “outliers” highlights key issues that typical participants may overlook – they are often the most ardent critics and cheerleaders

Conceptual Landscaping

  • What it is: Map or diagram complex, abstract social and cultural concepts, constructs, or activities
  • Why we do it: This is helpful in understanding how people conceptualize ideas in relation to each other

Card Sort

  • What it is: List images or words on separate cards and have people organize them in a way that holds meaning for them, constructing visual grouping of associated meaning
  • Why we do it: This helps expose the mental models, hierarchies, priorities and connections participants have as they relate to a topic

Semiotic Analysis

  • What it is: Examine how signs and symbols are used to construct meaning and how they are shared – it can be done using word/concept association, image associations, or color associations
  • Why we do it: This uncovers the perceptions customers have of their world and what messages have the most profound impact on them

Focus Groups

  • What it is: A gathering of individuals from a target area in a controlled group setting to ask a series of targeted questions
  • Why we do it: It can be used to get at a rich amount of shared beliefs, perceptions, actions

Unfocused Groups

  • What it is: A gathering of individuals in a workshop or open discussion forum where they have access to a wide range of creative things to stimulate interaction and creation
  • Why we do it: This encourages a dynamic, creative space where ideas can be shared freely as inhibitions are lowered


  • What it is: Develop and ask a series of targeted questions, generally in a macro-sampling
  • Why we do it: This process is a quick, efficient way to get at large samples of people when understanding context and subtle variation in meaning are not a driving factor

Photographic and Video Journals

  • What it is: Participants keep a written journal along with either a photographic or video diary of their beliefs, reactions, impressions, etc. as they relate to a specific issue, thing, topic
  • Why we do it: This is a content-rich, highly creative method that can be used over a wide range time to uncover emotionally charged areas of interest


This is the nuts and bolts phase, when the creation phase has effectively come to a close and it’s time to make sure all the details are in place. This stage is crucial to a solid execution.  It also identifies any pieces of the puzzle that may have been overlooked.  It is important to note that some of these methods (e.g. empathy testing) can also be done at the outset of a project, before the Explore phase.

Experience Prototyping

  • What it is: Rapidly prototype a concept and elicit input from participants in the design process
  • Why we do it: This process is efficient and a good way of involving customers directly into the design process, providing ideas and values they consider important

Scenario Testing

  • What it is: Develop a series of possible future, long-term scenarios reflecting the client’s changing brand promise and get reactions from participants
  • Why we do it: This is good for gauging consumer tolerance for change and determining possible risks

On-site Usability

  • What it is: Testing the ability of a consumer to use an interface, be it package design or an online application
  • Why we do it: This identifies any system and design problems that may cause consumers discomfort

Modeling and Concept Testing

  • What it is: Using models and fully developed representations of branding materials and spaces where they will be used (e.g. mock retail spaces) with clients, customers and the internal team
  • Why we do it: This process allows the client to respond to any issues and unmet needs prior to a full-blown launch


  • What it is: Team members taking on the roles of customers, stakeholders, etc. and working through issues from their perspectives
  • Why we do it: It provides team members a way of experiencing a branding solution from a different point of view, helping them construct alternative solutions

Customer Reenactment

  • What it is: Having the client act out or describe what they believe to be the “typical” customer experience
  • Why we do it: This is a good way of uncovering the client’s beliefs about their customers and addressing areas of disconnect

Empathy Testing

  • What it is: Using tools (blindfolds, weights, etc.) to gain first-hand experience of what customers experience
  • Why we do it: This is a great method for understanding what physical limitations customers experience due to disabilities, environmental stresses, etc.