Brands Mean a Lot
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Brands Mean a Lot

The Little brands that could

Thanks for reading this week. Today, let’s talk about an all-time great literary device and how it was employed by brands in the midst of Facebook’s outage. Also, I’m in desperate need of more social proof. If you haven’t yet, consider following me on Twitter. If you’re feeling extra generous, please support Brands Mean a Lot on Product Hunt.

Spoiler alert ahead…

In The Little Engine that Could, a tiny engine pulls a massive freight over a steep grade. But the protagonist engine isn’t built to perform such arduous work. It’s true purpose is as a switcher; meant to reroute railroad cars to assemble a train to be pulled by larger locomotives.

The engine was only given the opportunity to pull the freight over the hill because the original, stronger freight train had broken down. To make matters worse, the other, larger, locomotives in the train yard all refused to carry the burdensome load.

Armed with unrelenting optimism and a can-do mantra — “I think I can, I think I can” — the Little Engine manages to achieve something it wasn’t designed to: haul massive freight up and over the hill.

It’s a tale of perseverance. The story is an extended metaphor for children whose purpose is to instill perseverance, optimism, and believing in oneself against long odds. It doesn’t accomplish this without a key literary device: anthropomorphism. By that, I mean talking trains.

Original artwork by the author

Anthropomorphism isn’t just a means to have non-human things do human stuff, it’s a way of accentuating a message. In the case of The Little Engine, the repetitive chuga-chuga of a train is swapped out for the aforementioned mantra. The train becomes an allegory for our internal motivation and confidence. If the train were just some kid trying to climb a hill, it’d still work as a narrative, but it’d lose a lot of its punch. Because it’s an anthropomorphic train, the story resonates more. Each of us has an engine inside.

Brands, by nature of their need to connect with human beings so as to sell them stuff, are intrinsically anthropomorphic. There’s no single person who can represent Ford and implore me to buy a Taurus. Even if there’s a spokesperson, they’re only an intermediary speaking on behalf of the brand, who is trying to speak to me. So to connect with people, a brand needs to communicate and behave like a person. Just like The Little Engine. In attempting resonance, brands use our language, idioms, slang, etc. Sometimes they employ allegorical avatars to help get the point across: The Hamburger Helper mascot isn’t just a joyful sack of fingers, it’s an allegorical representation of the product’s ability to help customers easily and quickly prepare a dinner.

Image: Bloomberg

Anyhow, Facebook and all its side hustles like Instagram and Whatsapp went out for a huge chunk of the day on October 4th. This left TikTok and Twitter (and I guess Tumblr?) open to anyone still in need of a social media fix. And like the Winston Churchill or Rahm Emanuel (whoever you prefer) quote we began with says, brands were just as keen to not let Facebook’s internal crisis go to waste.

Dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, jumped to Twitter to crack wise about the outage. Social avatars are different from branded mascots though, and something about each brands’ respective attempts was grating. By joining in on the conversation the brands behaved as though they were part of the joke. Have you ever faked your way through understanding an inside joke to save yourself the embarrassment of being unable to relate, or because you secretly thought you were at the butt of the joke (I have 😔)?

Above is Microsoft Teams responding to Twitter, on Twitter, who had tweeted about the Facebook outage. I don’t like that sentence either. Ironically, Microsoft Teams suffered an outage on the very same day:

While this is about as on the nose as it gets, it’s no different for any other brand. They don’t get to be in on the joke because they are permanently the fodder. Perhaps not for this particular joke, but for past and future ones, yes.

The brands crossed a line from their anthropomorphism being in service of a metaphor about how they could improve a person’s life, to just flat out trying to be a person. A cool dude, as they say. In a brand’s context, the metaphor is meant to accentuate the value the brand can deliver to its customer. During the Twitter pile-on of Facebook, the metaphor that provided the meaning behind the brands’ anthropomorphism is gone. It’s empty. You might as well be sitting across from a person with a Nike Swoosh mask on trying to tell you how great the shoes are.

The moral of The Little Engine that Could is that we should all believe in ourselves. Brands, on the other hand, would be well served to believe in themselves a little less.


Originally published at on October 11, 2021.



Brands of all sorts, for people of all sorts

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