Monday, September 3, 2012

Peter Pan, the Old Man, and Brands that Last Forever

Over the Labor Day weekend, I watched a DVD by the late psychologist James Hillman on the Puer and the Senex, with the former referring generally to the archetype of the eternally young, as in Peter Pan, and the latter to the hide-bound, rule-waving elder, man or woman, who wants the rest of society to stay within the lines.  From a Jungian perspective, these archetypes describe psychological modes of being as well as types of behavior.  We saw these archetypes on display at the recent Republican Convention;   Clint Eastwood, an aging, angry, scolding Senex talking to a chair; and Representative Paul Ryan, sketching a trajectory of the high-flying Puer, who shaved an hour off his marathon time.  Whatever sins might have been committed at the convention, any runner will argue that this “sin” was as mortal as they get.  Runners never forget their marathon times.  Running a marathon in under three hours is as difficult as Congress passing a balanced budget.

In his presentation, Dr. Hillman mentioned Clint Eastwood’s role in the movie Gran Torino, in which the actor portrays a disgruntled Korean War veteran who openly resents the changes in the ethnic make-up of his Detroit neighborhood, especially the influx of the Hmong Americans.  For Hillman, Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, is Senex to the core, even when he softened his view towards the Hmong. Kowalski is “executed” in a manner consistent with his warrior culture and cunning.  His character cannot really think or get out of the box.

Hillman, whose psychology is apolitical, suggests that with all the idealization of the Puer, with his or her legions of Twitter followers and Facebook friends, the Senex, known for stubbornness, avarice, and resistance to change, will likely win the day.  We see this played out daily in our political theater.  President Obama’s promise of Change ran headlong into the Senex, who knows how to deal with the golden age of fantasy.

If the Senex and the Puer represent psychological modes or perspectives, they can also be seen to represent brands which, when successful, are also archetypes.  This is what makes them abiding and generally long-lasting.  I was thinking about this aspect of brands when reading about the late Helen Gurley Brown and her remarkable transformation of Cosmopolitan magazine and eventual international expansion.  This is certainly one of the most important magazines success stories, from both an editorial and business perspective, of the last fifty years.

While the Senex and the Puer might be battling it out on the national stage, it’s an open question whether brands can retain their historical permanence.  Douglas McIntyre has blogged about ten brands that will disappear in 2013 (www.24/, including RIM, Avon, Suzuki, American Airlines and others. The sweet smell of private equity money is present here and very little nostalgia.

I’ve heard over the years that somehow magazines brands are more resilient than so-called commodity brands because they carry our personal and cultural archetypes; in other words, our essential meanings.  Christine Haughney and Noam Cohen writing in the NYT Media Decoder conducted an unscientific reader poll of what magazines they missed (   Gourmet, shut down three years ago, “was the dearest of the dearly departed.”  Spy, Talk, George, and House and Garden also made the list.

I was at Hachette when George magazine was launched with John Kennedy as publisher.  I had a business development role at the company but little to do with George.  But I made my views clear on the magazine; I thought it lacked a business model.  The magazine lasted two years after Kennedy’s tragic death in 1999.

George was very much in the Puer tradition, a marriage of Kennedy mystique and celebrity politics; an arc of brilliance and an Icarus-like fall.  The magazine struggled before Kennedy’s death and was impossible after the fact.

Most magazines, whether they have a short lifespan or not, have archetypal roots and done well are grounded in in our culture, memory, and mythology.

In this regard magazines are indeed brands with a difference. 

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