What companies can learn from Wagner

  • What companies can learn from Wagner

    Brunhild and Branding

    It is a recognized fact that companies can gather valuable experience from stories of success within their own line of business – the so-called “best practise”. It may, however, come as a surprise that modern corporations can also deduce a great deal about branding from the theatrical world or, more accurately, from the 140 year-old The Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner.

    Branding is about finding and communicating company values, and creating consistent worlds that’ll touch the core of the human soul. With a keen eye to the questions, dilemmas and choices of mortal existence, Wagner anticipates modern corporations’ need for strategic reflection on who and what they want to be. In his Ring Cycle he offers a fine example of ever-relevant themes in the lives of mere mortals, and he does so by means of an original and coherent approach.

    Split into four parts, Der Ring des Niebelungen constitutes a true fitness centre for “branders”: a room where people in charge of a brand can exercise the
    aspects of the brand that need to be fit in order to lead the brand to victory.
    Wagner’s opera proposes a variety of dissimilar readings, but held up against the ways of the business world today, six central principles can serve as direction finders, in terms of creating relevant and spectacular communication.

    Be Passionate
    A recurrent theme in Der Ring des Niebelungen is the dilemma dealing with money and passion: the being who possesses the Rhine gold and is willing to reject love can forge a magical ring that bestows the being with power over the world and its people. But as it turns out, the very desire for power and denial of passion form a fatal course. Throughout Der Ring, the young goddess Brunhild is an exponent of the opposite – namely the determination to put passion above everything else –regardless of the price. Thus Wagner lets his heroine communicate his message about how the most important things in life should be given the highest of priorities. I.e. the only thing in life that really matters is our willingness to fight passionately for the things that are important to us.

    This leads us to the central question: what is important to a human being? What are the things that we wish for in life? And what do we want to be measured against when we look back upon our life? These questions are equally relevant for corporations adjusting to a world where the life span of a product is constantly getting shorter, and the rules of competition are changing. It is a well-documented fact that corporations that know what they rest upon and where they are going do much better commercially than those that only focus on the “Rhine gold”. An example is the healthcare company Novo Nordisk and their uncompromising vision stated by the managing director Lars Rebien: “I wish we could solve the problem of diabetes in my lifetime – even if that sounds strange as we make a living on the disease. But if it can be done, we are the ones to do it”.

    Brunhild’s development throughout the story is also Wagner’s way of showing that
    a genuine purpose in life is not something that can just be invented. Only by paying attention to one’s inner voice can true philosophy be discovered.

    Be Consistent
    Powerful brands don’t just materialize from the knowledge of what a corporation wants and stands for. They are always linked with a determined consistency in values and actions – everything said and done must be based on the same set of principles. Communications universes are models for working with a company’s main message and its style and tone, across business lines and product groups. Ikea and Danske Bank are good examples of such “Branded Houses”.

    Wagner’s Ring Cycle offers a compelling and explicit model for such a communications universe. The work is based on a vast collection of old lore and mythology, and could easily have turned into a jumble of tales going in different directions. The Ring Cycle is, however, a very coherent and consistent work due to Wagner’s idea of a fundamental theme supported by leitmotifs. His fundamental theme is like a string, spun by the principle of letting every important part in the play have a recurring musical leitmotif that refers to a particular emotion, event or idea. Even though the musical leitmotifs are many – 32 all together – they all work together in shaping a homogenous thematic foundation for the universe he has created.

    Such a synergy between variations over a fundamental theme is highly effective – also when it comes to branding monolith companies today. Danske Bank is an interesting example of a company that has managed to create such a synergy, by creating a fundamental theme on which every aspect of their communication rests. The company’s theme of professional empathy: “Do what you do best – that’s what we do”, is expressed through an unmistakeable style and tone. While variations on the theme may occur, they all refer to the company’s fundamental concept of professional empathy.

    Be Uncompromising
    Unlike most of his contemporaries, Wagner created his operas from scratch. Whereas Verdi and Mozart would most often be paid to write tailor-made productions, Wagner insisted on his liberty to pursue his dream of creating an overwhelmingly dramatic “pool of muck and blood” – a production that would touch even the most unsophisticated and simple audience.

    It seems unnecessary to state that brands can move from mere ignorance or a somewhat pale sympathy, to a sense of great respect within their target group, if they have the guts to be imaginative, overpowering and surprising – that is, if they have the courage to defy every possible convention. It isn’t difficult to find brands that could learn from Wagner’s uncompromising boldness. It is essential to confront fear and cowardice and to aim at the human heart and soul if one wants to touch the human catalogue of emotions.

    Be Innovative
    It is commonly recognised that the construction of a strong personality – for people as well as for brands – implies a search for continuity in what one says and represents.
    It doesn’t imply, however, that the manner by which one expresses oneself must be the same for all eternity. Brunhild’s process of formation shows just that.
    In his opera, Wagner uses Brunhild to illustrate the fact that emancipation and construction of one’s core is an important aspect of life: to begin with, Brunhild is her father’s daughter; then she moves on to be her husband’s wife, until she finally breaks free and becomes herself. Wagner hereby shows that one must not stop developing just because one is comfortable with the way conventions have formed one’s life – if these conventions are not in accordance with one’s true self. A thorough understanding of oneself and what one wants can enable one to find new and original ways of expressing oneself. Brunhild shows us that even though everything around us may be changing, and the end of the world is near, there’s no need to give up on our fundamental values. Far better is it to choose new companions who can enable us to stand by these values.

    As a parallel to this, we see successful brands navigating on an understanding of what they represent, but never stubbornly clinging on to a fixed formula for how their values should be expressed. Cherished brands such as Apple and Diesel have the integrity and courage to be playful about the ways they express their values, but they’re always paying homage to the heart and soul of the brand. The ability to be innovative and original and still be true to one’s fundamental values is one of the most important things that corporations can learn from the Brunhild character. Throughout the opera, she burns with an ever-increasing flame until she sacrifices herself at the very end. A sacrifice she makes in order to render possible for love and passion to flourish again.

    Be Humble
    That pride goes before a fall is an ancient theme used by many a tragedian. That Wagner uses it as well is somewhat surprising, considering how spectacular and disrespectful a work he has actually created. It also seems a paradox considering his message that necessity must always supersede fear. Nevertheless, he uses The Ring to show that there’s a limit to courageousness; that you should be bold, but never presumptuous:“Ihrem Ende eilen sie zu, die so stark in Bestehen sich wähnen” - Those who believe themselves invulnerable will soon meet their death. The morale is crystal-clear and can successfully be applied to many companies of today that show a tendency towards resting a little too long on their laurels.

    Be Attentive
    With his Ring Cycle, Wagner offers an experience that doesn’t just touch us as individuals, but holds wisdom that may put us on track of some of those existential questions and answers that can invigorate and strengthen a brand.
    Nonetheless, if you ever get the chance to experience Wagner’s Niebelung Ring, do save all your pragmatism till afterwards. Open your mind and listen with your heart. Corporations can only move if people allow themselves to be moved.

  • I'm still trying to take this in. You know Wagner, the ultimate anarchist - but an external and then later internal one - being used as the begings of a corporatre mission statement brainstorming sesion, well sort of. Once I get over the shock I think I shall retrun to this discussion

    • mboylan ha detto...
    • Utente
    • Gen 6 2008, 12:16
    Be Ironic
    Richard would be turning in his grave to know his work might be helping big business. An anarchist, free-lover, free-thinker and proto-communist he would need a keen sense of irony to enjoy this :)

  • and I suppose Wotan took a huge subprime mortgage out on Valhalla

  • Well considering Wagner was in debt most of his life, had to flee creditors on more than one occasion, and accepted a huge bailout from King Ludwig of Bavaria, I'd say American businesses have learned a lot from him.

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