A strange consistency

Branding wants continuity; advertising wants originality. Reconciling the two is the conundrum of the industry says our man on the inside

If you find yourself in Notting Hill, with an hour to spare, you could do worse than pay a visit to the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising off Colville Terrace. It’s small, but its collection is compelling. A tunnel, which curves back on itself intestinally, is lined with glass vitrines. Most of them are arranged according to era but, toward the end, there are a few cases devoted to perennial household brands like Oxo, Persil and Heinz. What’s fascinating about these isn’t how much they’ve changed over the years, but how little. All of them are more than a century old, longer than a human lifespan, and all their logos have now outlived their designers.

It’s hard to know whether their iconography has endured because of the persistence of the product, or the other way round. Some even demonstrate a kind of elasticity, changing gradually over many years, before reverting back to an earlier form, as some bright spark rediscovers the 50s version, noticing how it looks so clean and austere, how it’s just so now.

But the museum’s collection of advertising, shows something quite different. The blatant sexism, the meaningless puns, the bizarre threadbare glamour of old ads, makes them seem not just like they’ve come from another time, but another planet.
It just goes to show that branding and advertising, often mentioned in the same breath, are two quite different things. Practically the best thing you can say about a brand is that it has ‘heritage’, in other words, it’s old. Practically the best thing you can say about a piece of advertising is that you’ve never seen it before, in other words, it’s new. What we look for in branding is consistency, while what we look for in advertising is originality. No wonder working in this industry will fuck you up.

But maybe there is a reasonable explanation. The Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has spoken about the asymmetrical relationship between the part of ourselves that exists in memory and the part that exists in the present. Patients undergoing colonoscopy tend to have a worse experience of the procedure if it was painful at the end, than those for whom it was painful for longer but not at the end. The memory-self is interested in the story, and the story with the bad ending seems worse than the story with the less bad, if not especially uplifting, ending. Furthermore it’s the memory-self that makes all the important decisions: people will return to a proctologist who takes longer, but not the one who finishes with a flourish.

Seeing the consumer as a sort of two-headed monster, 90% memory and 10% now, could even help us understand some other difficult aspects of advertising. The relationship between the brand manager and agency is sometimes characterised as the conflict between conservatism and innovation. In fact, once you see it as an acting out of this need to make the old seem new, it might even make sense.

‘Gordon Comstock’ is an ad creative based in London. He tweets at @notvoodoo


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