In 1550, Giorgio Vasari, a mediocre Renaissance painter, published his ‘Lives of the Artists’, the most comprehensive book on the history of painting of its time.
Vasari’s book bought him a fame that his painting never would.
It also changed the way that we think about one of the most famous paintings in the world.
Here is part of Vasari’s description of the painting:
“And in this work of Leonardo there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold, and it was held to be something marvelous, in that it was not other than alive.”
Elswhere, Vasari, describes it as ‘un sorriso indimenticabile’, an unforgettable smile.
The work, of course, was the Mona Lisa.
The twist in the tale is that according to the work of eminent art historians Vasari almost certainly never saw Leonardo’s painting with his own eyes.
Much of the Mona Lisa’s fame, therefore, rests on a second-hand account. It is based on hearsay. I’m not saying that the Mona Lisa is a bad painting, but it isn’t the greatest painting of all time, and without Vasari’s assistance it probably wouldn’t be the archetype that we’ve become accustomed to seeing it as.
Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum. Human nature leads us to codify our experiences – and in the absence of an ‘off the shelf’ description, to find short summaries for things to fill the vacuum.
This, of course, creates risks and opportunities for brands. You need that catchy ‘off the shelf’ description – or the market will find one for you.
You might recall Gerard Ratner’s famous speech, likening his jewelry to a prawn sandwich. It was a throwaway remark from a man at the height of his powers – an ‘Icarus moment’ that brought his business down. In the absence of a better and more compelling (positive) description Ratners suffered in the court of journalistic and popular opinion.
The skill of brand communications and PR professionals is in establishing and embedding an idea of what a brand is, what it represents and what it enables. Without this narrative – and without the creation of a phrase that establishes a brand as an archetype for something positive – the market will find one for you.