‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’
The Second Coming – WB Yeats
For as long as I can remember things have been falling apart. Fragmenting, segmenting, empowering. Devolving, diffusing, decoupling. Subdividing, subcontracting, subbranding. Ever more channels, audiences, tools and platforms. Ever more markets, stakeholders, structures and roles.
I feel that for the entirety of my career we have been seeking coherence in an ever more fragmented world. Endeavouring to establish order in the disorder, to shape the shapeless, to find patterns in the mayhem of modern marketing.
In my early days we were arguing for campaigns not executions, continuity not chaos. Fighting against ‘goldfish advertising’.
Then as channels disbursed, as tasks multiplied, as Clients centralised, we advocated The Big Idea: the conceptual glue that held the brand together, that gave it a collective purpose. In time I also became a convert to the unifying power of the aesthetic, to the harmonising force of visual identity.
Of course the quest for coherence sometimes felt like swimming against the tide. It came with a loss of spontaneity, at a cost to creative freedom, with the risk of regimentation. But I always felt that coherence was worth it. Because I believed in the active, authorial, unitary brand; in a brand that brought more to the table than a willingness to please; in a brand that meant something to everyone, not anything to anyone.
I have occasionally wondered whether we were wrong. Perhaps we should concede that ultimately the centre really cannot hold. Perhaps in the age of the social web we should let go of the tiller, move with the tide, submit the brand to the ebb and flow of consumer needs and desires, whims and passions; liberate it from its corporate shackles to find its own articulation in the mouths of the crowd.
But I think I’m quite a conservative bloke. I can’t relinquish my belief in the unitary brand, however fragmentary its experience. And curiously the social web, with all its wild diversity and anarchic soul, has also given hope to Coherents like me.
‘Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.’
Marshall McLuhan – Introduction to Understanding Media (1964)
As a young Planner in the early ’90s I read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a book written the year I was born. I wanted to learn about the thinking behind such legendary phrases as ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village’. I discovered a whole lot more. It was an ambitious, lyrical, imaginative work. It was brilliantly passionate, fantastical, psychedelic.
I was particularly struck by the image of man in the electronic age extending his central nervous system beyond the constraints of physical form to reach out across the world. Wow! It was pure science fiction, of course, but it was a beautiful thought. Some years later I realised McLuhan had been predicting the arrival of the Internet…
The image of a world wide central nervous system has remained attractive to a lifelong believer in brand coherence. Because it’s an image that can be applied as much to brands as to people and things. It suggests that brands can embrace a glue more powerful than any corporate structure, conceptual definition or visual identity. Modern brands are finally capable of creating their own neural networks, their own central nervous systems.
So of course we should be introducing connectivity to everything we do right now, right the way across the path to purchase. Of course we should all be designing brand ecosystems and ecologies with bold, bright enthusiasm. Because at last we can see the reality of neurally networked brands which are sensitive, responsive and feeling. Brands which learn, think and evolve. And above all brands which are coherent and whole.
Perhaps the centre can hold after all.
First published: BBH LABS 09/07/2013