Modernised Mythology How brands are mixing myth & mysticism
Across markets there has been a shift emerging in what an aspirational lifestyle looks like, how to ‘live well,’ and how this attitude and approach to life is communicated visually and embraced by consumers. Perhaps spurred by the impact of the pandemic and awareness of climate change, new values are emerging that are expressed in food, fashion, entertainment, beauty, and more. Interestingly, we see that for many consumers willing to spend on the ‘right’ products and experiences, there are cues and codes that increasingly extend into a range of categories, suggesting an overarching, holistic lifestyle and set of guiding principles around how to live harmoniously with nature in the modern world. Brands hoping to appeal to this group of consumers and show their shared values are coalescing around specific symbols and visual styles, so that there is almost a micro “movement” occurring in branding.
Crucially, this movement is primarily drawing on the symbols and metaphors of mythology and mysticism, from a range of cultures and historical periods: we see Greek and Roman gods, tarot cards, traditional folklore, etc. In culture, we see for example a rising interest in reviving and re-evaluating folk traditions, such as Morris Dancing in England. But in consumer culture specifically, we see this symbolism and mythology blended with a unique stylistic blend of digital design that hints at historic handcraft, suggesting a desire to bring an ancient understanding of spirituality, nature, and pre-industrial craft into the modern age, without simply looking backwards.
In food and drink, brands are using this kind of imagery and visual style to immediately demonstrate the philosophy behind their produce, and the values customers will be buying into. The logo of restaurant Déméter in Bordeaux, for example, references the concept of agriculture, harvest, and seasonality by using the goddesses name, and an image that combines a woman’s face, adorned with the sun and moon, with the dual nature of Janus. This is, of course, mixed mythology, then layered with a heavy typeface rooted in the current digital era. But overall the effect communicates a kind of modern ‘pagan’ approach to working with the fluctuations of nature and what produce is offered at different times of year. This before one even reads the menu, which reinforces the dedication to seasonality. Likewise in some natural wines, such as Domaine la Calmette, whose wine “Serpent aux Plumes” is named after an ancient Mexican deity. The explanation from the winemaker for this naming and label design is telling: “This deity, mixing the earthly being of a reptile and the celestial nature of a bird, echoes the daily preoccupations of viticulture that we practice: artisanal, passionate, and careful of natural balance.”
This is popping up in packaged foods as well. In the UK, the Fable (a mushroom meat alternative) brand name quite literally references the non-rational, metaphorical knowledge held in mythical stories and fables passed down through generations. The brand’s woodblock-style typography and monochrome illustrations suggest ancient folkloric imagery and folk remedy wisdom. Culturally this stylistic choice is often associated to esoteric spiritual practices such as Celtic paganism or even tarot, implying an intuitive, pre-scientific form of knowledge that revives old ways of addressing challenges. Within this, there is also a link here to the unseen, previously untapped potential of mushrooms (an idea that has become increasingly popular), but linking that to human culture and knowledge. It suggests that through recognising these less literal truths and elements of the world, we can become better connected to nature and sustainable ways of living.
This also extends beyond food, and the quite literal sustainability values embedded in what we eat, to a range of other lifestyle brands. In beauty and fragrance, this is perhaps exemplified by Diptyque, whose candles and perfumes are often the star products of many ‘shelfies.’ Their labels, with imagery surrounded by a black and white frame of text, recall for example Roman seals one might find in a museum, hinting again at past European cultures. But these incorporate playful, contemporary hand-drawn illustrations and asymmetrically set typefaces that go beyond direct historical reference. And the recent collaboration with artist/designer Luke Edward Hall more overtly brings in the sense of classicism seen above, with illustrations featuring Ancient Greek ruins, decorative motifs, busts, and Mediterranean landscapes. This imagery is used to bring to life a connection to nature, and a scent that will immerse the wearer in the feeling of being on a Greek isle. Connecting with this ancient culture is again a subtle way of seeking a different human relationship with natural elements, landscapes, and ingredients.
As we have seen, there is a kind of ‘mix-and-match’ aspect of many of these examples; but contemporary consumers aren’t necessarily looking for a direct revival of past beliefs.* Instead we see a desire for products and brands that demonstrate an alternative set of values, which embrace sustainability, ethics, and perhaps a gentler way of living without completely sacrificing on the progress of modernity. Drawing on historical mythology, folkloric practices and beliefs, but at the same time embracing contemporary illustration styles, typography, and technologies reveals a desire to reconcile the tension of refined modern living and a search for answers and solutions beyond pure technology. There is an opportunity here to go beyond simply adopting a new visual style and address the emotional needs it reflects: in the face of an uncertain future and anxiety about the ongoing implications of technology, consumers are seeking meaning and answers in sometimes ‘forgotten’ places. Brands across categories can consider what products, experiences, and stories will help consumers feel more connected with nature on a personal, perhaps even spiritual, level without sacrificing the desire for beautiful, aspirational products and spaces.
*There is an important watch-out to note in engaging with this trend: Mixing traditions and symbolism can work, and does not need to adhere strictly to their original contexts and structures. But individuals and brands need to be considerate about where these traditions and symbols come from, and the myriad of meanings they may and do still possess. In particular it’s important to be considerate when referencing traditions and symbolism from outside one’s home culture, and articulating the ‘whys’ behind the inspiration and use of those images.
Isobel Grad, Project Director