Branding may have finally reached its Mannerist phase. Where the old-fashioned brand earnestly embraced a core message that verged on religious doctrine (Apple’s “Think Different,” Nike’s “Just Do It”), the new brand is aggressively self-aware, exaggerated and self-referential to the point of collapsing in on itself; rather than imbuing the product with magical qualities, it embraces and undercuts those qualities in one swift gesture. The effect is to subvert consumer prejudices and preconceptions and make us forget that we’re caught in a commerce-focused undertow.
It’s a counterintuitive sleight of hand: By acknowledging that their central message is unbelievable or at least exaggerated, the branding masterminds gain our trust and bolster our faith in the brand. Will Ferrell, for example, promoted “Anchorman II” and Dodge at the same time by appearing on talk shows as Ron Burgundy and declaring that Dodge’s cars were “terrible.” Dodge sales spiked. (Ferrell also voices President Business.) In New Zealand, Burger King ran YouTube ads of two guys eating Burger King while complaining about YouTube ads. Nearly every Super Bowl ad this year referred to the fact that it was a Super Bowl ad. The brand — and the TV ad, the movie and the fictional spokesman — is hyperaware of its own fictionality and thus earns the right to simultaneously denigrate and elevate itself as divine.
These acrobatics can be found in Lego’s trajectory from maker of humble toys to a multibillion-dollar cross-platform marketing empire. First, a simple product — primary-colored interlocking blocks — is expanded to include a universe of specialized pieces and wildly popular faces from Star Wars, Harry Potter, Spider-Man and Dora the Explorer. The Lego empire has since grown to include (among other things) six Legoland theme parks, more than 50 video games, Lego Modular Buildings (complex models aimed at adults), a programmable brick called Lego Mindstorms and something called Lego Serious Play, a “radical, innovative, experiential process designed to enhance business performance,” which seems to boil down to making adult co-workers play with Legos.