Chariots of Fire and Branding

On New Year’s Eve we settled in to watch the old movie Chariots of Fire.  Oh, it’s been quite some time since I last watched it.  But the teenagers in our home had never seen it before.  And with one of them running Track, it seemed like the right kind of inspirational movie to kick-off the New Year.

Briefly, the movie is about two runners in the UK, Harold Abrahams and Eric Lidell, preparing for the 1924 Olympics.  They are both undefeated in running until they meet each other.  In that pivotal race, Abrahams loses to Lidell.  Abrahams then turns to a professional trainer who reveals the importance of reaching for the tape, not watching out for the other runners.   The winners keep their eyes on the prize (to borrow from the old folk song) and not on the competition.

In other words, when you are running from the front, your odds of winning go up when you keep your eyes on the ultimate goals.  But if you are wasting energy judging your position vs. your competition, you may lose.

So what does this have to do with branding?  

It is a useful analogy for how Narrative Branding (R) is helping companies win, while brand positioning is misspending resources by focusing on the competition.

Consider for a moment the standard practice of brand positioning.  It is all about jockeying for relative position.  A brand is defined by its position vs. other brands.  Corporations spend much time and money defining themselves in contrast to their competitors.  This is known in branding patois as “differentiation.”  What makes my brand different from my competitors?   This is like the mistake that Abrahams made in his race against Lidell.  Abrahams was focused on Lidell.  But Lidell was focused on the finish line and got there first, without wasting energy looking at Abrahams.

Applying this analogy more fully to branding suggests that corporations are best when they focus on the desires of their audience.  They are more likely to create a compelling narrative with strong metaphors in that situation.   The brand and the audience co-create meaning together.

And branding is at its worst when it is too conscious of the competition’s brands.  It becomes a conversation between brands.   Each is looking over the shoulder at the other.  Each assumes that the other corporation is gaining some edge or has some special insight into their brands.  Each brand is defined relative to another brand and not relative to the desires of the audience.  They are conversing with each other, not engaging with the audience. The race for “differentiation” all too often becomes circular, insular.   The audience is a spectator at best.  And then the audience moves on, ignored.  

Now this doesn’t mean a corporation should completely ignore the competitor’s brand.  To do branding well, you need to have some sense of the other brands.  It should be a secondary consideration, not a primary one.

This lesson was absorbed by Abrahams as he focused on preparing for the big showdown in the Olympics.  

We paused the movie shortly before midnight, switching back to the local channels instead to watch the ball drop in Times Square.  Outside our windows we heard the fireworks going off in Central Park as the midnight race began.

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