Moving Ideas

What Don Draper knows about branding technology.

Recently we’ve been engaged in a number of contracts where the challenge of branding technology is central to our brief. It’s a point that cuts to the quick of user experience design. For the tech enterprise, user experience is often the most potent interface between business and customer: user experience reframed as brand experience.

There’s a scene in the final episode of the glorious first season of Mad Men where the usually whip-tongued, always poetic Donald Draper — the ad-man mongrel of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Conrad’s Kurtz — steps forth in the ubiquitous client pitch. Duck Philips the new Account Director, having chased a lead with Kodak, has set up a meeting with the company’s marketing execs to pitch a creative solution for their new product. The ‘Wheel’ was Eastman Kodak’s new mechanical toy — a relatively uninspired innovation that allowed its owner to remote control projected slide film. How far we’ve come!

The client team assemble and Don takes the stage. ‘Technology is a glittering lure’ he begins ‘… but there is a rare occasion when the public can be engaged beyond Flash. If they have a sentimental bond with the product.’

Sterling Cooper’s Creative Director goes on to recall his first job when Teddy the Greek Copywriter ‘… talked about a deeper bond (with) a product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate but potent.’

Salvatore Romano kills the lights, the sound of Lucky Strikes sparking fills the room. Draper proceeds in melancholy reflection, demonstrating Kodak’s ‘wheel’ with his own selection of cherished memories, slides of a happier Don and young family. The scene is punctuated by Harry Crane — the series’ portly do-gooder — excusing himself, handkerchief in hand, overcome by emotion.

Teddy told me that in Greek, Nostalgia means literally, “the pain from an old wound”. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This is not a spaceship, it’s a time machine… It’s not called “the Wheel”, it’s called “The Carousel”. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again. A place where we know we are loved. 

The predictable logo reveal displays the proposed brand name in fitting fairground typography and Don’s work is all but done. A final slide showing Don and Betty his wife with their newborn, sends the blubbering Harry running for cover. Duck Philips offers a stinging verbal smackdown; “Good luck at your next meeting” - as if to solidify the agency’s mastery of their art.

It’s a classic scene made all the more great by show creator’s Matthew Weiner’s spot on writing. I can think of few better lessons from pop culture on how to market or indeed brand technology. The branding process is about balancing the brand formula of function versus form; rational versus emotional; benefits versus values.  Technology’s ‘glittering lure’ dominates enterprise sales and marketing teams, borne of a virtuous pride in performance, innovation, capability. But we’re well past trying to ‘out-innovate’ the competition. Everyone in the automotive industry ‘gets’ emotion. Tech is playing catch-up.

The job of brand management is to communicate why all this speed and performance really matters to people, to make a promise to users or reach them on an emotional level. The scene from Mad Men, sums this up perfectly. For ‘Spaceship’ versus ‘Time Machine’, read rational versus emotional.

There is of course one other master of emotional branding. In 1997, Steve Jobs delivered a monologue to his top team about the imminent launch of their latest campaign. This is by far my favourite video of the great man as it provides a rare peek behind the curtain. The machinations of Oz in all its glory.

‘Marketing is about values…’ he begins. ‘Even the greatest brands need caring…’ Jobs tells his executives that it’s ‘… going to be hard to get people to remember us in the future. We need to bring it back. The way to do that…’ he maintains, ‘… is not to talk about speed. It’s not to talk about bits and megahertz. It’s not to talk about why we’re better than Windows.’

He sums up Apple’s new approach to branding technology… ‘We’re not about making boxes to help people get their jobs done. At our core (we believe that) people with passion can change the world.’

This was a key moment in Apple’s history, marking the triumphant return of the prodigal son. Chiat/Day’s Think Different campaign changed the game of how big tech companies marketed themselves. The Mad Men scene brings Jobs’ original insight back up to date with a little more poetry… but it’s a valuable lesson that to this day, only an inspired few have learned.

Damian Cranney

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Founder and Managing Director of Frank, Damian is an experienced brand consultant, dividing his time between strategic direction, planning and business development. You can follow Damian on Twitter @deecast