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Guest Column: Brandenstein: A brand's biggest fear is its own Doppelgänger imagery

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Guest Column: Brandenstein: A brand's biggest fear is its own Doppelgänger imagery

Mary Shelley, published a novel in 1818 – a novel that talked of an eccentric scientist Victor Frankenstein, who creates a grotesque creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Victor who attempts to create life, is horrified by what he ends up making, a monster which came to be dubbed Frankenstein. Little did she know that this monstrous concept will become a nightmare for brands and branding professionals. 

Today branding professionals set out to create strong brands through different branding strategies (Mindshare, Emotional, Viral and now Cultural Branding); but in the process are also empowering the stakeholders to create a double of a brand. Akin to Victor creating life, branding professionals create brand imagery in the minds of its stakeholders. But then a brand building exercise is not a monologue. The stakeholders through various means can jam the brand messaging and circulate the distortion in the popular culture. Therefore, a scary eventuality happens, events turn up in such a weird manner, that parallel brand imagery gets created and the brand actually becomes a demon, a monster, a persona non grata. A Brandenstein – a brand doppelgänger.

So what is this doppelganger brand imagery?

The positive evocation of a brand gets clouded by its villainish imagery – the whiplash of negative aura enveloping brands is gaining ascendancy. This phenomenon is known as Doppelgänger Brand Image.

Doppel (double) Gänger (walker or goer) is a paranormal double of a living person, and is deemed harbinger of bad luck.

Doppelgänger Brand Image, comprising negative perceptions, creates a compelling set of motifs that influence the impact of a brand. The creation of this Doppelgänger Brand Image confuses customers and can lead to “brand avoidance” effects (Congress party down to mere 44 seats). The Doppelgänger Brand Image is jamming the messages and stories about a brand that are circulated in popular culture by consumers, anti-brand activists, bloggers, and opinion leaders in the social or non-social media.

Look at a specific brand like Indian Premier League (IPL), a globally recognized cricket extravaganza valued at $3.2 billion in 2014. Brand IPL is a hybrid of cricket and entertainment – a model that was successful and instrumental in India’s control over world cricket. But look further, and we become aware of problems therein (financial irregularities, match fixing scandals, nepotism, off-the-field conduct of players, etc.).

Interestingly, cricket was historically noted as a gentleman’s game; however, IPL is mired in controversies of match-fixing and misgovernance, bringing to fore uglier aspects of the commercial event. The IPL stakeholders at large carry out circulating jokes, mimicking the messages, critically commenting on the unorthodox approach of the game (cheerleaders, auctions, parties, fixing, etc.), hence creating the brand IPL’s doppelganger – The IPL Brandenstein.

Again, look at Congress – a party with legendary past, towering high and mighty on Indian political scene even half a century post independence; and yet what a drubbing the brand has taken in the recent elections with the party down to a demeaning 44 seats. The corruption, remote control governance, Pappu, silent PM, etc. created a Congress party Brandenstein. What a stark antithesis to its earlier greatness and stature.

Microsoft, the pioneer in personal computer operating systems and office utility software, is accused of ruthless capitalism, saddled with numerous censures and litigations on anti-trust. This doppelgänger imagery forced Microsoft to increase its corporate communication spends on promoting itself as a social responsible company.

Similarly, Pepsi, the icon for youth, enjoying a leading market share, is implicated in harmful ingredients debate, and charged with inflicting harm to water tables. The delicious serves by McDonald’s are painted as anti-health and obesity promoting. Goldman Sachs, the world leader in consulting and advisory, is portrayed in diabolical cold inhuman like hues. The list goes on.

Nike got embroiled in sweatshop practices controversy and sales dropped. Tiger Woods himself and his endorsed brands got rubbed negatively.

This Doppelgänger, if heightened in intensity, can acquire mega dimensions of a Brandenstein, and well nigh bring death of a brand, a messy painful death. An in-depth biopsy into Doppelgänger Brand Image is worth studying. It shall yield deeper insights that can be used for better understanding and management of any brand. This emerging concept holds tremendous potential for deeper forays.

The emergence of a powerful, popular Doppelgänger may signal that a brand has ‘peaked’ and must either evolve or decline. Brand researchers have explored the creation and circulation of monstrous Doppelgänger brand imagery by anti-brand activists and found that this powerfully influences public perception of a corporate brand.

The practice of parodying messages and media activism or hacktivism in order to drastically alter their message is a core mechanism herein. The opposing stakeholders are busy jamming the brand messages and viral it through social media. The brand manager’s challenge is to reshaping the brand as per contextual and strategic considerations. Accordingly, one has to allow for tactics to ward off Doppelgänger brand image.

And, beautifully, one can venture in this direction: Can Doppelgänger Brand Imagery affect Brands in “positive” as well as “negative” manner? Are strong Brands more likely to be more vulnerable to Doppelgänger Brand Imagery? Let our brands not morph into unwelcome brandensteins. The brand managers need to strategize as to how to manage the brand’s Doppelgänger. The best way to fight fear of course is to challenge it, than avoid!

Gaurav Sood is a Brand Communication professional with a two- decade practice creating strong brands. His passion is being a Brand Educator & Consultant.

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