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Brand Inception

Friday, May 6, 2011 - 10:00

By now, most of you have probably seen the hugely successful Christopher Nolan film Inception. It is a movie that explores that possibility that an idea can be planted in the mind of a person without them knowing it.

From Hollywood’s standpoint, it is a science fiction twist on an old-fashioned heist film. However, from the standpoint of a marketing communications professional, it is something much closer to pornography. For decades these folks have sought to plant ideas in the minds of consumers. Albeit, less dramatically.

While Inception is a work of fantasy, it seemed to me in watching the film that each character’s role in the adventure could be rather neatly made analogous to some aspect of the marketing communications process.

First, there is Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Arthur who I would most closely associate with the marketing strategist. He is rational, analytical, and a grounding presence. While the rest of the team may consider him unimaginative, his efforts in researching, and coordinating the operation are critical.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb is reflective of traditional advertising in the sense that he makes his appeal in a direct manner. His character has a stated agenda and the message, like most ads, sews the seeds of insecurity while at the same time offering a call to action.

Eames, played by Tom Hardy makes for a dynamic complement to Cobb as the ‘forger’ - disguising himself as a trusted friend or a beautiful woman. His role is akin to the efforts of a brand ambassador, or an embedded/social media marketer. As such, his pitch gives the appearance of a genuine endorsement, but is in fact a veiled advertisement.

All that said, it is Ellen Page of Juno fame that is of the greatest interest to me in her role as Ariadne, the architect. She is responsible for designing the dream environment, which I feel most resembles the role of a branding agency.

The dream is a world designed to be populated by the subconscious of the dreamer, just as a brand is a world designed to be populated by the aspirations of the consumer. Brands are formed of color, texture, typography, vision and voice. They are not entirely real, but yet they are at least wishfully convincing.

Just as the dreams of Inception are a closed loop like the Penrose stairs, brands are something of a maze as well. They are designed to feel limitless by winding consumers though a world of continuity. Take Apple as an example. The store is a bright white environment filled with tempered glass, and metallic trims. It is a aesthetics that embodies the minimalism and sophistication of the products themselves. As such it is also applied to their packaging and even the interface of their software to keep the experience controlled and seamless.

The true power of a brand is in seeing that it is more than the passive stage from which the other marketing actors set their performance. It can be an attraction unto itself. As Cobb loses the ability to discern between dreams and reality, so too can the consumer as they increasingly embrace a brand’s vision. In the case of the most powerful brands, this takes place willfully. For individuals that identify with a brand, buying their product is no more a choice than their own eye color. 

The trick in the film and in marketing communications is not to force the mind to accept a foreign idea, but rather to entice it into being a willing accomplice. This is what the branding agency strives to provide is shaping a brand world. A vision that is cohesive enough to earn consumer trust and appealing enough to whet their aspirations.

John Gavula
Contributed By John Gavula

John is the creative director of Gavula Design. He has provided design and illustrator services for many of New York and the region's biggest brand consultancies. Leveraging this experience, and his multidisciplinary background he now works closely with Gavula Design’s clients as a trusted branding partner and steward.