The holidays are coming and that means awkward interactions with your tipsy auntie Jean and forced-small talk at your partner’s company holiday party. You’ll inevitably be asked what you do for a living and you’ll inevitably “Um” and “It’s like…” your way to something more closely resembling leftover turkey rather than a memorable or accurate description of your job. The exasperated complaint that, “Even my mom doesn’t understand what I do,” can be lobed from many professions — we’re all hard-working people doing complex work, after all. Designers particularly love to fly this flag and I’m here with a creative solution for people working in branding (sorry everyone else).
Branding is a tricky subject. Most people know enough to be dangerous. They’ll often confuse a brand for a logo (which it isn’t) or a product (also wrong). Logos and products are only a few components that go into shaping a brand but they are not the brand itself. Marty Neumeier said it best: “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or organization. It exists in the hearts and minds of individuals.” Branding is just like the Dread Pirate Roberts in the film, The Princess Bride. Let me refresh your memory.*
Our main characters, Princess Buttercup and Westley have just finished their iconic roll down a grassy hill. To escape the vial Humperdinck, they flee into the fire swamp, a place of dog-sized rats and death. While slicing down vines and dodging bursting flames spewed from the ground, Westley explains his past and how he transitioned from heartthrob farm boy to heartthrob swashbuckler.
“Well, Roberts had grown so rich, he wanted to retire. So he took me to his cabin, and told me his secret. “I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts”, he said. “My name is Ryan. I inherited the ship from the previous Dread Pirate Roberts, just as you will inherit it from me. The man I inherited it from was not the real Dread Pirate Roberts either. His name was Cummerbund. The real Roberts has been retired fifteen years and living like a king in Patagonia.”
This gives us a solid explanation of what happened to him, but Westley goes a step further to reveal the branding lesson about name recognition.
“Then he explained that the name was the important thing for inspiring the necessary fear. You see, no one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Westley. So we sailed ashore, took on an entirely new crew, and he stayed aboard for a while as first mate, all the time calling me Roberts. Once the crew believed, he left the ship, and I have been Roberts ever since.”
By maintaining the same name, a consistent look, and incorporating multiple people into the role of the character, the Dread Pirate Roberts transcends being a singular person into a brand.
The notion of a pirate as a brand isn’t a new observation. In the book Glimmer, Warren Berger recalls a lecture by Brian Collins that touches on the importance of experience in shaping a brand.
“Collins describes the experience of peering out into the sea and noticing the Jolly Roger flag flying on an approaching ship. ‘As soon as you see that symbol, you know exactly what kind of story is in store for you.’ As Collins explains, that pirate ‘brand’ has a story behind it that everyone knew, and the story was built and reinforced by memorable experiences — all of the previous legendary encounters that had taken place between the pirates and other ships.”
But the lessons don’t stop with Westley and the Dread Pirate Roberts. Building a brand requires storytelling and a consistent messaging drumbeat. This lesson belongs to Inigo Montoya, whose words ring repeatedly throughout the film. They capture a gripping accusation and a call-to-action befitting the best marketer. Montoya’s brand is acute revenge and he has the swashbuckling skills to back up his signature line, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
The next time you say that you work in branding and someone says “Oh, like logos and stuff,” you can slyly answer: “Branding?! I do not think it means what you think it means.”