The Beast and the Beauty
by Will Novosedlik
May 1, 2017
You can't control your brand's narrative, but you can have more conversations
One of the most active posts in my LinkedIn feed earlier this month featured The New York Times story about an emotional standoff between two bronze statues—one of a Charging Bull and the other of a Fearless Girl.
By now everyone knows the story: the Charging Bull, an 11-foot tall, 18-foot long bronze statue that has been sitting on the pavement near Wall Street for the last 30 years, has recently been joined by a life-size but much smaller and just as fierce little girl placed opposite it.
The Bull began as a stunt: it was funded, created and installed without permission under cover of darkness by Italian-American sculptor Arturo Di Modica back in 1989. His intention was to pay homage to the spirit of American capitalism, and, after an initial brouhaha due to lack of permits and such, the bronze bovine was allowed a permanent home where it sits today. Almost 30 years later, it has indeed become an icon of capitalism—or at least Wall Street’s rapacious version of it.
In an ironic twist, the Fearless Girl, as she is called, was commissioned by Boston-based investment firm State Street ($24 trillion under management) and installed on International Women’s Day, ostensibly to promote greater diversity in American corporate leadership. Di Modica, as reported by the Times, is insulted that the original meaning of his monument to the free market has been distorted by the presence of this impertinent little girl. One writer for the Huffington Post says Di Modica views the Fearless Girl as having turned his bull into a “villain representing greed, patriarchy and gender inequality.”
I’d say he’s right on the money. That’s exactly what it said to me when I first saw it. Only difference between Di Modica and me is that he thinks that’s a bad thing.
In the meantime, thousands of New Yorkers have fallen in love with the girl and what she represents—feminine power and a splinter in the eye of Wall Street. The pair of them facing off are no less than a 21st-century David and Goliath—and as such, an instantiation of one of our most enduring and inspiring myths.
The whole situation brings to mind a very basic lesson: once your brand is out there, it’s no longer yours. You don’t own it anymore. It becomes a conversation that you are welcome to join but can no longer fully control. Neither Di Modica nor State Street is in control of the brand narrative. And though the stunt has no doubt generated scads of exposure for State Street, it will fade. In fact, it’s already been pointed out that perhaps the ultimate irony here is that only 27 per cent of State Street’s board of directors, 23 per cent of its EVPs, and 28 per cent of its SVPs are women. So much for diversity.
Di Modica (by virtue of his IP claims) and State Street are equally dispassionate in their commercial intent. Neither can be said to have acted out of a deep sense of social purpose. And yet the beast and the beauty are virtually soaked in the social significance now bestowed upon them by a public that yearns for respite from the unchecked predation of high finance and the wounded ego of an increasingly irrelevant patriarchy.
Oh, how life imitates art.
Will Novosedlik likes playing in traffic at the intersections of business, brand, design and innovation. He's worked both as a consultant and client on brands such as Telus, TD Bank, Bata International, Williams-Sonoma, Vodafone and Deutsche Telecom in Canada, the US, North Africa and Europe.
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