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Charismatic Times Call for Open Brands

wethink_ram Resource/Ammirati, Building Open Brands Aug. 17, 2012

A colleague of mine was doing her utmost last week to distribute a delectable chocolate torte to anyone in the office willing to ingest their day’s calorie count in a single forkful. She was trying to give it away after her father, “not a cake or torte type,” had inexplicably bought not a slice but the whole affair. “He was glamoured,” I joked, tucking into my second bite. “The chocolate glamoured him.” My colleague paused, considered it, and then completely accepted that explanation, as do my friends and I, when one of us has splurged on an ill-advised purchase or—to anticipate my deeper argument a bit—fallen under the spell of a brand.

Depending on which etymological route you choose, the first verbing of glamour belongs not to our era’s voluminous vampire pop arcana but to the ancient Greeks or the early 1800s, when “grammar” as an occult power (which some would argue it still is) was involved. Hence, glamour’s often dark associations with danger, mystery, the loss of self-control. For those desiring an even pulpier definition, there is the delightfully exacting entry on “glamour” from a True Blood wiki:

Glamour: Vampires are able to “glamour” humans. Glamour is a form of hypnosis, which requires vampires to make eye contact and use their voices to make humans do their bidding. Glamouring does not affect other vampires, powerful witches, maenads, fairies and other supernatural creatures. Excessive glamouring can have a negative effect on the mental stability of a victim. Glamouring is not an innate ability, as it needs to be taught and practiced (often by makers). Vampires can glamour at least two humans at the same time.

I perhaps would not have followed this crimson thread if it weren’t for Virginia Postrel’s provocative work on the glamour/charisma dyad that has blossomed lately—as it did in 2008—into a polarizing political meme. But now that I’m in the deep end of the pool, the verb glamour is a useful way to describe the method and purpose of mass media–created brands. TV commercials and print ads glamoured at least two humans at the same time (well, some might call it mass hypnosis) to buy branded automobiles and hair pomade by providing the mise-en-scène on which to project personal desires. Once desires were inextricably associated with Marlboro, Gucci or Tupperware, brands could “make humans do their bidding.” And thus was born the American military-industrial consumerism complex. And, if you ask any CMO, they’ll agree that “Glamouring is not an innate ability, as it needs to be taught and practiced.” Social media–extended brands, social media–enlivened brands, on the other hand, have charisma by virtue of the channels or touchpoints they keep. To help us unravel the differences between these essential qualities, Postrel pits one against the other:

Open brands thrive in charismatic times, times defined by the real-time web of perpetual live performances and conversations, of proximity and participation. This does not mean open brands in the luxury category, for instance, cannot continue to cultivate a glamorous core. It does mean, however, that the social experience stratum of a luxury brand—powered by digital—needs to be one of greater accessibility, dynamism, and shared mission.  Burberry is instructive here, a luxury brand whose innovative prowess arguably comes from maintaining the tension between its glamorous core of merchandise and fashion events and the digital access we’re granted in order to witness what’s behind the scenes of both. The nod to mass customization in the design-your-own-trench-coat experience of Burberry Bespoke lets us into the atelier, and the Tweetwalk gave us backstage privileges, where we witnessed the “making” of glamour and the democratic tweaking of retail’s timing. Glamour edits out the messy details that tell the tale of human labor; charisma restores them.

I think the glamour/charisma dyad explains some of the glamour-schooled CMOs’ dilemma when faced with legions of Facebook or Tumblr followers, once they have attracted them. What is the charismatic contract? How does it work, not tactically, but more fundamentally, in terms of the new social norms of reciprocity? If we dive deeper into the mechanisms of charisma, as identified by sociologist Max Weber, we need a crisis of some sort—of unfettered consumerism checked by economic stagnation or environmental abuse, for example, or the housing-market-like overvaluation of brands based on their static equities as defined in The Brand Bubble—for a charismatic leader, movement or brand to become effective, to rally the troops with new cultural means of expression and self-empowerment.

I’ll take a closer look at the charismatic contract next post. Until then, I give you a probing marketing question to ponder, posed by a true True Blood fan:

Can vampires glamour through the TV? We know that Bill has special abilities when it comes to glamouring…but do his skills extend through cyber space?”

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