Death is on our minds, and it makes us a tad uncomfortable.
The hipsters in Williamsburg do their annual Zombie Crawl. Jeffrey Dietsch celebrates Skullphone at the MOCA graffiti show. The dark underbelly of life is revealed to ecstatic appeal. From morbid humor to broody color palettes, consumers are embracing a dark sensibility in design and entertainment. Skulls and zombies and vampires and all manner of deathly things permeate our popular culture.
Art imitates life. In an atmosphere where traumatic events are subject to media-driven hyperbole, we have become hyper-aware of our own mortality. Last week, multiple states ordered massive mandatory evacuations and Mayor Bloomberg shut down of the entire NYC subway system in anticipation of an ‘historic’ hurricane. A few days earlier, an earthquake tremor sent us running in a panic: Down and out! Is it a bomb? Put on the news!
Of course the Mayans, Nostradamus and numerous fringe-y cults have been predicting an imminent Armageddon for some time now. We have always been keenly aware of our mortality and vulnerability, afloat in an uncertain world. And now in this so-called Age of Anxiety, this period of ideological confusion and general trepidation, we are drawn to the acknowledgement of our own aliveness and strength that reminders of so death keenly provide.
What does it mean for branding, innovation and design?
What can we expect to see from our favorite brands in the coming months and years? What will prove to be the successful strategies that strengthen the bond between brand and man, and what pitfalls will need to be avoided? And what role will design and visual language play in all of this?
We believe consumers will be drawn to brands that offer some core emotional benefits of which they are very much in need:
1) Feeling alive
Even as we live, there are small deaths every day – disappointments, losses. And bigger ones – illnesses, injuries, divorces, bankruptcies.
They are deaths, but they are not the end, much as they may feel that way. So we search for ways to remind us of our aliveness. Remembering our own mortality helps us to to live more fully and mindfully. Symbols of death shout: Celebrate life! Celebrate the now!
And perhaps we also seek the titillation that horror provides, that edge-of-your seat anticipation that surely leaves us feeling 100% alive. Painter Edvard Munch, most famous for “The Scream,” was fond of vampires. He often annotated his works with storylines in a series of journals. For one of his vampire etchings, he wrote:
He laid his head against her breast - he could hear her heartbeat - felt the blood coursing through her veins - and he felt two burning lips on his neck - it sent a shudder through his body - a shiver of desire so that he clasped her tightly to him
We feel pretty alive just reading that.
To the extent that brands can provide excitement, anticipation, on-the-edge experiences – really get the adrenalin pumping – they will create powerful connections with consumers who are seeking escape from their daily worries as well as validation that life lives on.
Death comes for us all. All things pass. Hope prevails.
It’s all about democracy. The post-internet crash, post-Wall Street crash generation has had it with elitism and exclusivity. They want crowd-sourcing. Flash mobs. Meet-ups. Can’t-we-all-just-get-along. What resonates with millenials is inclusivity, universality, hope.
Brands that can embrace and not judge, that are inclusive not exclusive, that engage consumers in a dialogue and value their opinions – these are the brands that will build the most meaningful relationships.
Here we sit, playing Plants vs. Zombies on our iPads, intently transforming tiny rays of sunshine into killer plants that will stop the encroaching zombies before they eat our brains and transform us into zombies. Transformation is the American Dream. The promise of a better future. The opportunity to reinvent ourselves.
What kind of transformation can your brand offer? How can the people who use your product or service come out better than they were before using it? Be creative.
Teenagers, known for their disbelief in their own mortality, have always been fascinated with vampires and zombies and such, largely because they offer a solution for eternal life. Our adult love affair with the undead is no different. In Mexico, home to epic Day of the Dead skull art, the skull is said to represent rebirth. Jewelry designers Me&Ro say the skull is a reminder to always live fully and mindfully. All that Ed Hardy apparel is really just our way of searching for optimism in a treacherous world.
Consumers are drawn to a dark sensibility because it reminds them of the light. Symbols of death such as skulls and taxidermy remind us of our mortality, remind us that time is fleeting and we must use ours wisely, to live life fully, to celebrate the now.
People need optimism. Tell us life is good. Tell us it’s all going to be okay. But beware. In a time high anxiety, squeaky cheerfulness is at best annoying and at worst infuriating, so keep it a little nuanced, a little cryptic. A stuffed moose head in the powder room should do the trick. Find a way for your brand to offer us a message of hope, but hold the hearts and flowers please.
Brands speak to consumers where they live, in the context of their frame of mind and their emotional state. Design provides comfort and security. We surround ourselves with what pleases us to look at, what makes us feel safe. Design as it is used in branding, then, must support the brand’s role as friend, soothing us through the rough patch, dropping an anchor in the sea of uncertainty. Intelligent, relevant visual language creates an immediate personal connection between brand and consumer. The friend who really “gets” you is a true and lasting friend.