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04/19/2009

The death of an idea

Berlin wall  

Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev are taking a trip by train. Suddenly, the train stops in the middle of nowhere. The three leaders start debating what to do in order to get moving. “Lets explain to the engine-driver that it is in the interest of the proletariat to immediately fix the problem!” says Lenin. “Lets shoot the son of a bitch!” shouts Stalin. “No,” says Brezhnev, “lets just hop up and down on our seats and pretend that the train is still running.”

 This is one of the old jokes that delighted Eastern Europeans during the time of communism. The main point of the joke is that in the 1970’s and 1980’ the virus of communism was dead.  On the surface, there was still a ideological war going on; it seemed that the Marxist-Leninist meme was full of life, threatening to flow over the Berlin war and compete with the ideology of capitalism – but the folk wisdom knew better: communism was dead and we were hopping up and down, pretending that it was still alive.

 Interestingly, if you had sneaked across the iron curtain at the time and conducted a tracking study with the Eastern Europeans, exploring the image of the communist party you would have probably learned that the communist meme was sound and well – scoring high on attributes such as dynamic, vital or innovative. You would have learned this because people would have lied to the interviewers – protecting themselves from troubles, splitting their personas into a public and a private one.

 The meme of communism seems dead today. The victor is the ideology of capitalism and its great insignias – the global brands. The global brands that have laddered up far, far up from functional benefits to the heights of human truths. The brands that have, from their heights, pointed a way for their consumers – to success, happiness…and greed and neuroses.

 The Western (and Eastern) European consumers are still dutifully answering in tracking studies, assigning attributes such as “dynamic” or “fun” to global brands of lemonades. They don’t lie but they answer mechanically – most of the tracking studies are designed to support such mechanical attribution of statements to brands. Idealogical memes are like stars: we see their reflections long time after they are cold and dead. 

 The “brand ideals” and ideology, full of optimism and endless possibilities begin to really contrast with the real lives of their consumers who are worried about their jobs and the roofs over their heads.

 What smart brands might want to do now is to join their consumers on the way down the snakes - from the heights of Maslow pyramid and an obsession with self-expression, to the basics and back to home. And, as many observers have pointed out already, it might be a healthy home coming that will let people rediscover forgotten values of togetherness and simple pleasures. Brands could help down there by adding real  value and by being humble, helpful, incremental and entertaining without preaching. Lego is a great example of this, its sales are up double digits in the UK- as if consumers have suddenly remembered an old friend - real, solid, simple and also genuine and creative. I think that brands can also learn from the retail giants that have tried (mainly succesfully) to hide their real size behind humble facade: Tesco's  "little help" is a great promise in a time of recession. An then there are the entertainers, the "Fred Astairs" of this depression which are warming us up without preaching - the "Dancing Eyebrows" created by Fallon for Cadbury is a shining example of this trend. 

  It will be tough home coming for some other brands - the larger than life balloons of hot air with missions aimed at changing the world. Brands are ideas and ideas (and ideology in the sense of a system of representation) die when the gap between them and reality become too wide, too wide for even the dummiest consumer, brand manager or a party member to believe in them.

(written for the April issue of the Research World, Esomar)