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by Finn Jackson

Introduction by christan wolf

What has dancing got to do with branding?

That is the opening question Finn Jackson evaluates in finding an answer what makes today´s brands successful.

At the basis of his quest is a conversation between Gregory Bateson and his daughter Nora about the difference, ambiguities and (probably) the secret between REALITY and PRETENDING(meaning: creating an emotional and thus successful connection between a product and its consumers).

As a reader the questions you may ask yourself when reading this outline could (amongst others) be:

* What exactly is pretending?

* Is there a secret and if yes for whom?

* What is a marketers perspective on Batesons thoughts?

* What a consumers perpective?

* Is there a difference between a marketer´s and a consumer´s perspective and why?

General Information about Greory Bateson:

Gregory Bateson is one of the founding fathers of systems thinking. His main intention is to illustrate the interconnectedness of the world. Sometimes his way of inquiry is hard to understand for traditional thinkers because he emphazises primarily on depicting relationships and thus finds it hard to give ultimate answers or draw final conclusions.

Additional information about one of the most influential thinkers of our times:


by Finn Jackson

In one of their metalogues, Bateson and his daughter Nora talk about the meanings evoked by dance. This tells us something about what it takes to build a strong brand.

Unfortunately, if we want to know how to put this secret into practice, Bateson tells us, ”It’s a secret.” (Well, almost.)

In this metalogue, Bateson and his daughter talk about the ballets Swan Lake and Petrushka. (This second ballet is about a traditional Russian puppet or ‘petrushka’, made of sawdust and straw, who comes to life and develops emotions.)

Father and daughter wonder why the composers chose to write about a swan and a puppet, and reflect on the extent to which they find themselves caught up in watching ‘a puppet’ on the stage, or ‘a swan’, rather than simply watching ‘a human dancer in a costume’.

And they realise that when the puppet or swan displays strong human characteristics, they are watching something that is somehow even more ‘human’ than the other characters on the stage.

They decide that they are watching something that is ‘sort of’ human, and a ‘sort of’ swan / puppet. But what does ‘sort of’ mean?

They realise that ‘sort of’ can have two meanings: a ‘subset of’, and ‘having similar characteristics to’. On the one hand, a swan is a sort of bird. (And the dancing swan is a sort of swan — a ‘pretend’ swan.) And on the other hand, the behaviour of this particular dancing swan is sort of birdlike, sort of human.

When we say the puppet Petroushka is sort of human we mean that there is a relationship, a metaphorical relationship, between some of the ideas we have about puppets and some of the ideas we have about being human.

Father and daughter then talk about the Christian practice of taking bread and wine. For some people these are ‘sort of’ the body and blood of Christ. For others they are literally the body and blood: they are a sacrament, a sacred rite.

Bateson thinks that ballet works in the same way. For some people the costume and movements of the dancer are metaphor for a swan or a puppet. But for others they are a sacrament [a sacred rite 'by which divine life is dispensed to us'].

How would we tell the difference between a dancer who was dancing a metaphor and one who was dancing a sacrament? [And is this the difference that marks out a truly great dancer?]

Bateson wonders whether the difference lies with the dancer. Or with the audience. Or is it a combination of the two?

He decides that neither the dancer, nor the audience has control over whether a particular performance is a sacrament. [Which seems to imply that control lies with both of them --- in the same way that a play can come alive when 'something' happens between the audience and the actors.] Beyond that, he says, it is a sort of a secret where the difference comes from. It is something that we cannot tell. “Great art and religion and all the rest of it is about this secret,” he says [and also branding as we shall see]. “But knowing the secret in an ordinary conscious way would not give the knower control” [over the secret]. [Which implies that the secret must be known unconsciously.]

“The swan figure is not a real swan but a pretend swan. It is also a pretend-not human being. And it is also ‘really’ a young lady wearing a white dress. And a real swan would resemble a young lady in certain ways.”

He continues: “It is not one of these statements but their combination that constitutes a sacrement. The ‘pretend’ and the ‘pretend-not’ and the ‘really’ somehow get fused together into a single meaning.”

Logicians and scientists like to keep them separate. But they do not write great ballets, or sacraments.

This metalogue is ‘sort of’ about branding. It appears to be about something completely else. And at the same time it is absolutely about what happens deep within the branding process.

Great brands, like great dancers and great actors, touch us and evoke in us an emotional or even spiritual connection with what it is to be human.

Great brands do the same.

They combine a number of elements and mix them up: emotional connection, reliable delivery, and adaptability and innovation. They “fuse together the ‘pretend’ and the ‘pretend-not’ and the ‘really’ into a single meaning.”

For example, the top five global brands in 2012 were:

  • Coca-Cola ‘Pretends’ it is a great tasting drink (and ‘pretends it is not’ a highly effective marketing machine) and it is ‘really’ an averagely-flavoured fizzy water drink, well-marketed)

  • Apple ‘Pretends’ that it is all about incredible human-centred design (and ‘pretends it is not’ a company with an entire, hard-nosed business strategy), and it is ‘really’ a hard-driving, hardware innovation company, with strengths in design.

  • IBM ‘Pretends’ it is an innovative, reliable behemoth (and ‘pretends it does not’ have any weaknesses), and it is ‘really’ a large, innovative, multifaceted technology company, with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others.

  • Google ‘Pretends’ it is a flawless technology company (and ‘pretends it is not’ evil [or we might prefer to say not flawed or human]), and it is ‘really’ a software company with an evolving portfolio of money-making and money-losing products that has lined itself up against many (more specialised) rivals.

  • Microsoft ‘Pretends’ that its software is exciting and sexy (and ‘pretends it is not’ a company that is still living off a lucky break it got over 30 years ago), and it is ‘really’ a reasonably good technology company with a dominant market position. (You can test this against your own favourite (and un-favourite) top brands of 2012, here.)

Unfortunately, as Bateson tells us, if we want to know clearly how to do this, then a) it’s a secret (or a sort of secret), and b) it’s unconscious.

But we do have a ‘hint’ above that good branding (or sacrament) comes out of the interaction between the dancer and the audience, and this is something that will be developed further in Bateson’s later writings.

Finn Jackson is an Independent Management Consulting Professional

and the author of The Escher Cycle

He lives in Guilford, UK



* LinkedIn

Recommended reading:

* Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Contact Nora Bateson:


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