Building a relationship between the ‘strange, familiar, and mystical’ is what successful consumer brands and brand owners do, or should be trying to do: to simultaneously simplify AND mystify brands to make them optimally effective.

It was 20th century anthropologist Horace Miner, and later Nobel novelist Toni Morrison, who described their respective roles as: ‘familiarising the strange and mystifying the familiar’. They were both referring to the process of observing everyday human activities which have become normative practices (i.e. washing rituals, using cutlery at meal times, etc.), and through analysis and explanation, unpacking their strangeness to make them clear and understandable. At the same time, they showed how this analytical and creative process also simultaneously helps us understand that those activities are filled with mystery, which makes them extra engaging and more meaningful (i.e. washing is to purify your soul not just clean your clothes – “…out damn spot” as Shakespeare put it!).

In the 21st century we can apply this principle to understand the success of leading brands. Nike, for instance, eschews its brand name on its retail stores, in favour of a logo which clearly demonstrates the power of the ‘strange-familiar-mystical’ (S-F-M) triple equation:

Strange: assuming no familiarity with the brand, what is the weird ‘swoosh’ image signage seen outside stores globally? Is it a tick for good homework, is this a school? Is it a practical tool for showing us the direction of travel towards the right? Is it an abstract work of art? Its strangeness is disconcerting.

Familiar:  Upon knowing it’s a sporting goods brand, we understand that it represents the functional speediness that the athletic apparel (from sneakers to clothing) can give you, and helps you achieve your sporting goals. It signals the practicality of the brand’s products.

Mystical:  It signifies how Nike gives you the superhuman power to overcome the limitations of the human and transcend normative sporting expectation – like Michael Jordan, Nike will enable you to fly. The swoosh is thus imbued with religious awe, like the cross, crescent or star seen outside some buildings.

The success of culturally-driven effective brands is built on this structure:

  1. Observe normal, everyday tasks/activities to examine the characteristics, needs, experiences and behaviours that surround them in order to create insight. Again let’s take a brand example: e.g. Strange: Heinz tomato ketchup is a glass icon of red slow releasing goo sitting on the kitchen table – its problem as a strange paste (taking too long to emerge from the bottle) was also its virtue (it signalled the thick natural ingredient).

  2. Unpack and respond to them in practical and simple ways, normalising them and removing their ‘strangeness’ or complexity to create practical innovative solutions.
    e.g. Familiar: Heinz tomato ketchup moved from being in a glass bottle, to an easy and convenient upside down squeezy-bottle increasing usage. The ease and simplicity with which these solutions fit into consumer lives is key to the speed of adoption, and this is facilitated by cultural understanding (integrating the solution into the cultural context of familiar experiences i.e. tomato ketchup is most frequently used to add tangy flavour in the context of indulgent fast food, so speedy delivery from a squeezy bottle was crucial to satisfy the need for a familiar practical taste & to meet the conditions of a familiar cultural moment). Understanding normative cultural practices creates opportunities for innovation to make a brand more familiar, reducing its strangeness.  

  3. Then crucially, to be distinctive, brands must Infuse the solution with uniqueness and mystery to create an effective commercial brand. Again, the conscious use of cultural triggers and meaning is a critical part of making the brand mystical (beyond the function of the product) and sustainable (the layers of cultural fit, language and imagery make imitation harder).
    e.g. Mystical: Heinz tomato ketchup adopted the strapline “grown not made”, and signalled it through an illustration of a ripe tomato on the vine on the bottle. This in turn coded the mystery of fecund nature, and of the rich natural flavour. This mystical vision of natural production persuades consumers that Heinz tomato ketchup is better than the commodified own label product, and that it is instead a culturally powerful icon of mealtimes as familial connection, social belonging, and healthier lifestyles.

So what?

We believe this creates a framework for thinking about brands through a cultural lens. This is especially relevant in a world where difference is increasingly hard to deliver, and most categories are highly commoditised, and own-label alternatives are high quality and (often) cheaper, if not always better value!

Generally brands are not consciously considering culture as a magnifier of their distinctiveness. In our experience all great brands which retain and gain market share, do unlock their cultural relevance, perhaps even unconsciously. Deliberate leverage of cultural meaning remains a great unrealised opportunity for brands.

Strangeness: Delivers a macro world-view of the role of the category, which creates an opportunity to be distinctive and disruptive.

Familiarity: Practical effective solutions to people’s needs to overcome strangeness.

Mystery: The unique way your brand responds to that and builds its own culturally-driven world.

Take for example Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, which continues to use disruptive imagery and challenging messaging to keep the original concept alive and edgy. This essence is largely built on cultural meaning. But, to stay relevant there is a deliberate attempt to mix the mystical message of creating and determining an abstract concept like beauty, with lots of functional and category familiar messaging – to ensure product credibility – with brave, sometimes less universally acceptable messaging, to re-enforce the brand essence.

Strange: the historical disconnection between the beauty category & how real women felt about themselves. Beauty brands were strange because they were ‘not like me’; they had created a narrow vision of beauty – the implication was that you needed to look like that vision not as you actually were. The category felt strange and alienating because it signalled that what you were wasn’t good enough.

Familiar: Dove campaign – I am really beautiful just the way I am.

Mystical: Beauty is wonderfully varied and diverse and can be found in many places and is represented by many people in different ways. Dove gave you permission to be beautiful by looking different, in both the real and virtual worlds.

Great advertising is ultimately about magnifying the mystification that creates points of emotional connection or perceived difference – the brand’s unique essence. Innovation is about re-expressing the category benefits to re-mystify the familiar.

This is key to building brand equity and driving mental availability. To do this without cultural meaning is impossible.

Brands need to be familiar and accessible, leveraging the normal and category-building effects to be hyper-relevant, whilst also magnifying their strangeness & mystery to be distinctive. Our challenge is that brands can use culture more consciously and deliberately to achieve this. Too many brands are doing so by default not by design/deliberate action.

Take as another example of this cultural triple-equation the brand Patagonia.

Strange:  Mountains fill you with awe, terror, and wonder and invite you to have a go at conquering them which is an exciting but scary instinct.

Familiar:  Patagonia enables you to be emotionally confident in the face of scary nature – underpinned by the founder’s own personal experience of mountain climbing. The brand’s familiarity is built on its product quality and essential pragmatic functionality, e.g. Nano Puff Jacket: “Warm, windproof, water-resistant…”.

Mystical: Patagonia’s mystery comes from the authentic, user-centric, worldview of its role as a brand which can help you to simultaneously conquer & protect nature and mountains, and reach the summit of the world, and stand on Olympus with the Gods! This is an obsession with how the brand fits into consumer lives and aspirational sustainability goals, and drives micro-innovation around mystical product details, e.g. “…the Nano Puff® Jacket uses incredibly lightweight and highly compressible 60-g PrimaLoft® Gold Insulation Eco 100% postconsumer recycled polyester with P.U.R.E.™ (Produced Using Reduced Emissions) technology, wrapped in a 100% recycled polyester shell and lining. Made in a Fair Trade Certified™ factory.”

SO culture drives strangeness and mystery, and understanding current and emerging culture allows brands to be on the leading-edge of the mainstream without becoming niche or losing relevance for mass audiences or getting left behind as out-dated.

Culture also drives the everyday familiarity that consumers need, crave even, to feel comfortable and integrate a category or brand into their lives.

Brands that deliberately choose to manage their relationship with culture will create a competitive advantage. Sadly, many brands seem to explore culture in an ad hoc way and feel it is an esoteric exercise in exploration or is only undertaken in moments of crisis. It should be front and centre of any future strategy though, because if you don’t understand cultural change, you can’t help to build brands which are infused with strangeness, familiarity, and mystery, a combination which in crowded categories can give you the competitive advantage of difference, distinction, and relevance.

Alex Gordon, CEO

Everyday Magic: Building brands as Strange, Familiar, and Mystical