Brand Studio Creative Director Marcus Bartlett is fond of asking teams “what is the thingthat is the thing?” It’s more than a riddle. It’s the beginning of a conversation to link a story to a brand idea—a way of avoiding the obvious and hinting at the symbolic value of a brand that drives brand attachment. In episode 002 of The Point of Attachment podcast, studio chief Larry Vincent asks Marcus to break it down for the audience.
The thing that is the thing might be a hook or a reference. It’s a way of connecting the promise–the strategy–to something that creatively attracts our interests.
This hook or reference can take many forms. Larry and Marcus start by thinking of it as a point of indirection, with Larry relating the idea to screenwriting’s time-honored tradition of The MacGuffin. To explain it, Larry interviews John August, an award-winning screenwriter and director, and the co-host of Scriptnotes, a popular podcast on the art and craft of screenwriting.
A MacGuffin refers to the thing that the plot of a story is about, even if that thing is ultimately not that important to the plot. You might not leave a movie thinking about that thing, but you sort of are, in the middle of the story, focused on that object or idea.
Screenwriting’s thing that is the thing is often a plot device that helps to stitch the movie experience together. And it’s a good corollary to identity design. But Marcus argues that sometimes the thing that is the thing has a deeper meaning. It’s more than a device. It’s an act of symbolism.
The Starbucks siren almost has nothing to do with coffee. But the siren is a great symbol for the journey, for travel, for adventure.
That prompts the team to go out into the streets of Manhattan to ask real Starbucks consumers about the meaning of the Starbucks logo. We find that one of the world’s most iconic brand identities is a bit of a mystery to the average coffee drinker. And that’s a good thing. Marcus relates it to great art.
If a person walks up to a [Edward] Hopper in a museum, they might just see four people eating eggs in a diner at one in the morning. They don’t need to know anything more but the more they look at it, the more they experience it, maybe the more coffee they drink, maybe the more caffeinated they become, they might actually get more out of the brand. They might actually see more into the painting. That’s what’s so great about branding. It actually really connects art to storytelling.
Marcus and Larry finish the discussion by exploring a third role of the thing that is the thing. Larry interviews Thinkwell Creative Director Craig Hanna to explore the art of the weenie. The weenie is a creative term first defined by Walt Disney while designing Disneyland. It stuck in the field of experience design. Craig describes how a weenie plays an important role in motivating audiences to move from point A to point B and to engage them in the details of a brand experience.
How do we encourage the visitor to find something, visually or emotionally or experientially intriguing, to draw them to it, and once they reach that point, the next one, and the next one? It is a very subtle but very intentional device to force and encourage people in certain ways through an experience without having big signs always saying, “Turn left! Turn right!”
Whether you call it a MacGuffin or a weenie or the thing that is the thing, Marcus and Larry argue that the key to defining a great brand identity is to uncover the idea that lies beneath the surface—one that piques curiosity and includes a bit of mystery—in order to keep audiences engaged.