Apple is a Fortune 500 company that has taken its brand beyond the 'unique selling proposition' concept. Photo: Reuters
Apple's iPhone may be facing a big drop in sales in China. Photo: Reuters

In many ancient cities, there were governing priesthoods to help to connect their people with cosmological developments that were mathematically discoverable. Etymologists have found that such practices were commonplace even in disparate societies to help people intimately experience and feel they belonged to their environments so that they could play constructive roles in that society.

For example, the cyclical theme of life, death and resurrection can be found in societies where agriculture is the predominant means of survival. In these societies, it would be common to experience a mythology that made references to the seasons, and the cycle of crop seeding. Adolf Bastian, a 19th-century polymath, called these common themes elementary ideas. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung referred to a similar interpretation of elementary ideas as “archetypes of the unconscious”.

Brand builders should appreciate the psychological basis of Bastian’s discovery and work toward reaching into these elementary frames of references that are commonly held in our inner consciousness. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “There are the laws of physics, and everything else is opinion.”

Yet mankind’s celebration and observance of mythology proves that opinion matters. Those that stand the test of time are myths that have evolved to reflect the science of the day – many of which might well be represented in some of the strongest brands we know today.

Mythological responses to strong brands

In the British Broadcasting Corp’s “Secrets of the Superbrands”, series creator Alex Riley shared: “The Bishop of Buckingham – who reads his Bible on an iPad – explained to me the similarities between Apple and a religion. And when a team of neuroscientists with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner took a look inside the brain of an Apple fanatic …”

The results suggested that Apple was actually stimulating the same parts of the brain as religious imagery does in people of faith.
These findings were consistent with research conducted by author Martin Lindstrom for his book Buyology, who found that there was virtually no difference in how our brain responds to strong brands, such as Apple, and to religious images. Strong brands produced increased activity in areas of the brain associated with memory, decision-making, emotion, and religious experience.

On the other hand, weaker brands showed activity in entirely different regions of the brain. In the same way that myths of the past have helped man to experience and find meaning in his surroundings, Michael Shevack, a former advertising man-turned clergyman, believes that brands today can fulfill the sense of desire for belonging.

“There are pleasures, qualities, drives within the person, even unbeknownst to the person consciously, that interface with the phenomenon which is a brand, and which determine the person’s relationship not merely with the brand, but the entire world, both inwardly, and outwardly, unconsciously and consciously, that the person inhabits and englobes,” he said.

Much like mythic symbols, strong brands can become metaphorical references that tap man’s inner consciousness to inspire an outward desire for aspiration and belonging.

Creators of ecosystems

Winning enterprises today have evolved from makers of product to designers of platforms and creators of ecosystems. The business models of Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft – Fortune 500’s top three companies by market value in 2016 – reflect this reality.

Brands today that still perpetuate ideas such as the “unique selling proposition” (USP), another rubric from the 1960s, are akin to embracing the cosmography of a “flat Earth”. One brand that has been able to break through and resonate is Dove.

Building on its particular resonance with women, beauty brand Dove has reframed the elementary idea of “the rite of passage from childhood, into adult initiation” into a compelling movement for the modern age. Dove launched the Self-Esteem Project “to ensure the next generation grows up enjoying a positive relationship with the way they look – helping girls to raise their self-esteem and realize their full potential”. Eleven years on, the brand claims to have helped 17 million young people in 112 countries.

It says: “No other organization is acting on this important issue on the same scale or with the same impact. We are also proud to say that by working with independent academic experts and conducting rigorous scientific research, we have been able to show that Dove’s self-esteem education is world-class and scientifically proven to significantly increase body confidence and self-esteem in young people.”

By making beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety, Dove has reframed this elementary idea into a global movement that co-opts partners, organizations, parents and institutions into its brand universe, where its mythology can be experienced – beyond having a USP of “the soap with one-quarter moisturizing cream”.

Strong brands today need to personify these new business models by constructing mythologies that can be experienced in a universe of touch points.

Marcus Loh

Marcus is Director, Asia Pacific Communication at Tableau Software (NYSE: DATA), the world's leading visual analytics platform. He is passionate about making brands matter in the data age and takes joy in giving back to the community by serving in various advisory capacities for academia, industry and non-profits. His views on brand strategy, data literacy and public affairs have been published in The Diplomat, Channel NewsAsia, The Straits Times, The Business Times, Singapore Business Review among...