Are brands playing the part?

As digital media continues to fragment and brands have to fight to maintain a consistent tone of voice, it’s always worth taking the time to reassess what it is that actually drives them.

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Not what drives them in terms of business objectives, revenues, share of market, profits, share of mind and that kind of thing. I’m referring to what actually motivates them – what drives their passions and informs their character. In other words, what makes them act the way they do? What is their raison d’etre?

These days everything comes down to authenticity and believeability. Nobody has any spare time to think otherwise. If something feels inauthentic and phony, then people just won’t bother to let it in.

There’s no point in following the crowd or jumping on bandwagons; people can spot it a mile off. Brands have to be themselves. The ways in which brands behave not only in social channels like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but in every digital channel from online advertising to mobile, comes down to character. In turn, character is underpinned by motivation.

And, as is the case with real people, the motivation of brands probably doesn’t really ever change that much. Brands that stay true to their original driving factors, whether it’s a set of values or the direct leadership of a founder, often benefit from single-mindedness and clarity of unwavering vision.

For every well-known brand with an established, defined character such as Apple, Innocent and Virgin, there’s always a bunch of new ones breaking through like Android, Netflix and Under Armour.

The challenge is taking the motivation and assembling a believeable character from it. After all, if a brand comes across as lacking depth, humanity, tangibility and warmth, no consumers are going to aspire to it.

It’s not only the communications industry that faces this daily challenge. For example, when a critic reviews a novel, a play or a movie, there’s obviously an importance placed on the overall plot, techniques used and quality of execution, but, arguably, it’s still characterisation that determines whether it’s judged to be a bona fide success. If the characters aren’t well drawn and don’t feel true then it’s a story built on moving sands.

How does it work in the acting profession? Uta Hagan was a well-known acting teacher in New York and coach of successful actors such as Al Pacino and Matthew Broderick. A strong advocate of authenticity, she once said: “If I can see the acting, I really don’t like it”. (The same principle could be used for writing that wears its copy brief on its sleeve, a campaign that doesn’t mind if its strategy is showing or typography that is noticed before the words which it is trying to characterise.)

Actors under Hagan’s tutelage were taught to understand a character’s longings and desires via two main entry points. Firstly, the external person – that is, to examine and understand the character by external aspects of that character’s life. (Alex Guinness, for example, used to pay particular attention to the character’s shoes.) Secondly, they look at the internal aspects of the character they’ll be playing; their thoughts and feelings. (Laurence Olivier used to like taking characters to a therapist to understand them, although only metaphorically of course.)

Hagan was a strong believer of the Stanislavski method, which aims to create realistic portrayals of characters via a perfect understanding of their motivations, obstacles and objectives during each moment. Using the Stanislavski method involves the actor analysing the script, looking for key identifying factors as to the motivation of the character.

In the world of fiction, too, creating well-drawn characters can mean the difference between an involved audience and an ambivalent one. Two well-known examples of strong characterisation are Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, the former of which she felt ‘such a burst of energy being lent to her’ by the protagonist – Thomas Cromwell -during the writing process. ‘Alastair Campbell with an axe’ was how David Starkey memorably described him, which, at the very least, would suggest a certain degree of humanity!

Perhaps that’s the biggest challenge of all for brands – not to be seen first and foremost as ‘brands’, but as something altogether more genuine, more authentic. Not as something that’s desperate for a few retweets of that twitpic they’ve put out, or that witticism that’s appeared in someone’s news feed, but something altogether more human instead.

And that’s not as easy as it sounds, believe me.