by Will Novosedlik
October 10, 2017
A semiotic romp through the world of branded humanoids
Anthropomorphosis is one of the oldest tricks in the book.
Ancient religions did it with their gods. Greek poets did it with their mythical heroes. Christians did it with their God, angels and the devil. Comic books do it with superheroes, mutants and monsters. It is branding 101, a storytelling device as old as storytelling itself.
To anthropomorphize a brand is to imagine who its target should be, or what human attributes the brand should reflect in order to be attractive to a designated target. And it works. But who ever really peels away the semiotic layers of these fictitious creatures and asks what they mean?
Mr. Clean, the whitest man in branding, has been living under our sinks for decades. I have some questions. Why is he bald with a ring in his ear? I mean he’s had that since way before piercing was even cool. Is he an ex-sailor? Is he a former wrestler? Or is he the janitor on a Federation Starship?
Then there’s Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and the Cream of Wheat guy. Really? It’s 2017. Come on. Surely we’re way past these prejudicial stereotypes. But then you remember Ferguson. And Trayvon Martin. And countless other examples of unjustified attacks on blacks. And suddenly you understand why nobody’s ever abandoned these three icons of servitude: they are deeply embedded manifestations of systemic racism, so deep we don’t even know they’re there.
It’s a tricky business, this brandthropomorphism. Consider brandthropomorphism by association. For years ING Direct Canada (now Tangerine Bank) had Frederik de Groot, the reassuring and very practical voice of the brand, whose buttoned-down, quasi-Calvinist presence seemed perfectly aligned with the values of prudence and thrift that he pitched to Canadian consumers. And it worked because that message resonated with a culture that is still to some extent infused with a sense of Scottish moderation and cautiousness.
How about Allen Lulu, the affable 5’4” store manager-cum-spokesperson for A&W? The fast food purveyor’s most recent campaigns, filmed in various locations across Canada, have endeared Lulu to the hearts of all the ordinary Canadians who appeared on camera with him. From cattle farmers to university students, everyone who met him was completely disarmed by his unscripted, conversational improvisations, labelling him—and by extension, the brand—as "authentic." (Never mind that he is a Los Angeles-based American actor.)
Then there is Galen Weston, not an actor but an actual storeowner and a billionaire to boot. I don’t know what people think of G2 (as he is called by friends and relations) as an anthro-brand these days, but over the years since his on-air debut as Loblaws' chief executive pitchman, there have been many mentions of how lovable and non-threatening he is, particularly to women consumers.
Seems like, in Canada at least, cuddly white male brandthropomorphs work very well. Imagine a police line-up with Galen Weston, Allen Lulu, Frederik de Groot, the BelairDirect knight in shining armour and the grey-clad Canadian Tire guy. Which one would you send to jail? Tough call.
The final form of brandthropomorphosis worth noting is the one that responds to our ever-mounting fear of technology. I’m thinking here of the WealthSimple campaign that’s out there right now. The one where you are staring at head-and-shoulder shots of millennials staring back at you without a trace of emotion, with headlines like "Investing for humans who don’t trust finance guys." In this case, the target is the brand, or at least the brand would like it to be. I wonder if the irony of a robo-advisor claiming to "invest for humans" is lost on the target, long known for its defining obsession with irony—and technology?
Whatever manifestation it comes in, the brandthropomorph seems destined to be with us for as long as brands are around, for the simple reason that it’s hard to have a relationship with something as abstract and intangible as a brand without putting some skin and bones on it. Just like it’s impossible for some people to imagine that the universe was not created by an old man in a long white beard called "God." The oldest brand in the book.
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.