Embrace your shadow

We know what we feel about a brand without thinking consciously about it – if the brand is well known and distinctive enough. Of course, those of you addicted to algorithm-based digital “hunter-killer” marketing will not believe this, so you can stop reading.

For those of you who are willing to accept that many of your choices are subconscious and that you lack the free will you thought you had, the following may be interesting. 

Carl Jung was greatly concerned with the shadow, that part of us we have no wish to be. We repress and feel ashamed of that part of our personality. As a result, we often project that quality onto others, or suppress things we wrongly consider to be faults, for instance, assertiveness or flirtation. 

This is a bit of a leap, but I think brands have shadows, which brand owners try to suppress (only for people to detect and react to them anyway). Others embrace them.

I saw an example of the latter on television the other day – an ad for Burger King where a bright-eyed, clean cut, optimistic and helpful server (Jung would identify this as a depiction of a brand’s ‘ideal’ persona) yearns for the customer to pick something exciting and new from the menu, only to be crestfallen when he orders a Chicken Royale, like, it is implied, everyone else.

It’s not the most imaginative or entertaining piece of creative work. However, it did two things that go to the heart of a strong brand:

  1. It gave the impression that loads of people regularly go to Burger King. This generates crucial cultural and social permission to use the brand, and is particularly valuable given that McDonald’s beats it in the “ubiquitous and acceptable” stakes.
  2. It made a virtue of what we may see as a weakness, or a “shadow” – that people go to Burger King and boringly order the same thing, every time. 

Go to Burger King, get a Chicken Royale, like everyone else, it’s “enough.”

This is an example of “satisficing,” a phenomenon which ultra “reliable” brands like McDonald’s and Burger King rely upon. By highlighting what may be seen as a “shadow” – the boring predictability of the Burger King experience (which so disappoints our starry-eyed server), it strengthens the sub-conscious brand appeal, which is what makes people in a split second eschew the boutique delicatessen or “posh” burger joint and pop into Burger King “because it’s easy and I know what to have.”

It got me thinking about what would happen if other brands embraced their shadows, especially if those shadows are well known by the public already.

What if Marcus, the retail savings arm of Goldman Sachs embraced the “vampire squid / wolf of Wall Street” image that the mother bank suffers from? As a “normal” saver I’d love to have a great, ferocious, but well-trained wolf by my side, or even a vampire squid. Let’s face it, there’s nothing more self-interested than earning money on your savings. Despite the appeals of the Co-Op Bank or the saccharine pleadings of Nationwide, I’m not interested in a “good” bank, just one that protects and grows my money. All else is post-rationalization.

Or what if crypto / blockchain companies lost the moralizing in their brand positionings and instead embraced their inner “Musk”? Or perhaps even the fundamental tedium of it? After all, blockchain is a ledger and there’s nothing more boring than that – but it’s a way to build new businesses and organizations. People lifted high on “ledgers” – it reminds me of the Crimson Permanent Assurance from Monty Python putting to the sword the behemoths of high finance.

We live in a society where people are constantly trying to claim a moral high ground, an ideal “persona.” However, in doing this, refusing to acknowledge and embrace their shadows, frustration and nastiness can result. The moral grandstanding and “hate” peddled around political and social issues on social media is a case in point. Perhaps the time has come to embrace our shadows rather than suffocate them. And perhaps the same goes for brands, if they’re to truly reflect the ubiquitous “integrity,” “authenticity” and “humanity” in their “brand values.” They’ll become more credible, more trusted and more interesting. Far more so than by pretending to be impossibly “good.”

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