Human myths and history, how we can create better brands
A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see Yuval Noah Harari speak on his ideas around human evolution and the stories we tell. It got me thinking about where brands find themselves these days. For anyone who isn’t familiar with Harari’s work, his central argument is effectively that stories (myths) have shaped human development. He recognises 3 key revolutions in human status in the world; the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution. He also argued that we are likely slap bang in the middle of the next one, the AI revolution, but that is a different topic altogether. In each revolution humans have effectively ‘skipped’ to the top of the food chain, and as such, we have created myths, explanations and ideas to keep us there.
These myths have shaped our current situation as humankind, they create common sources of belief and understanding that have created the now global tribal structure we find ourselves within. But thinking in this way raises questions; if brands are a type of ‘myth’ in their own right, how do we then think about them, and build stronger ones?
Look backwards and learn
As a historian, Harari’s focus is in understanding what we can learn from the past to help us understand our situation in the present. He made the comparison between the fundamental shifts that the Industrial Revolution brought to the world in the 19th Century, and the uncertainty this raised. One of the results, often forgotten now in popular story telling, was the number of wars based on a resurgence of fundamentalist values that this created. In times of uncertainty, a natural human urge is to look backwards, to the myths we trust and know now, as we are waiting for the ‘new myths’ to take hold. Harari’s suggestion was that the most significant myth of the 21st Century is unlikely to be the hard-line Islamic worldview that ISIS, amongst others, promote, but rather is more likely to be a new set of values and beliefs aligned with technology. Silicon Valley, is likely shape the new religion more so than the Middle East will.
We cannot predict the future, and have no way of knowing whether or not this is true. However what we can learn from it is that a recognition of history, of where we’ve come from, viewed honestly, can open up new ways of seeing the world.
As brands, we too often either ignore what has been tried before, or we find ourselves trapped in the ‘winners version’ of history i.e. we pay attention to the successful stories of what happened. Arguably, by a more thorough examination of what has come before, we can open up new ways of solving what might be an increasingly similar problem. The key to future success may lie in what failed, not what worked.
Do you believe it?
Harari made the point that the most successful ‘myths’, and by myths we effectively mean the stories that become power structures, are those that are genuinely believed. Nothing spreads that doesn’t, at the heart of it, have a group of people who truly believe in what they’re doing. For example, religions spread because at their heart, religious leaders, priests, clerics have ‘true belief’. Likewise capitalism endures as the ‘most successful myth ever told’ because not only bankers, but politicians, policy makers, and arguably most of the populous genuinely believe the solution to problems is ‘economic growth’.
Which raises the question, if you’re in charge of a brand, or product. Do you believe in it? Really, truly? Do you believe it is the best option there is? Do you think what you stand for is right? Because arguably, if you don’t, then chances are you’re unlikely to ‘spread’ in the way you might want to. We often see this belief as inherent in new or challenger brands, but by fostering it within larger more established brands we might hold the key to reinvigoration.
The third lesson to be taken from Harari is that nothing ever remains as it was originally expressed once it enters the world of humans. As a species we are vastly successful at reinterpreting, reimagining and twisting the stories that we are presented with into something new and that fits our purpose. Arguably we are working to develop technologies that make us increasingly adept at doing so, as the acceptance of photo-shopping, meme-creation, and hacking continues to grow exponentially.
As brand guardians therefore, do we ever really expect to ‘maintain control’ of our story? Those days are arguably gone. Should we help to facilitate reinterpretation, aiming for more positive evolution than negative? Or do we attempt to predict where our stories might go, and plan for it? If we accept that we cannot control where our brand will go, we can start to look forward to how it could be used in new and interesting ways? Arguably ‘spin’ is one of humankind’s most innate traits, and we need to recognise this in everything we do and produce.
In short, humans tell stories, and brands are some of the most powerful stories of our time. Its time we realised stopped thinking about them as ‘entities’ or pieces of property that are beyond us, and realise that the stories that we tell follow rules that have been laid down since we first learnt to speak.