Rembrandt painted hundreds of portraits over his lifetime. Even to the untrained eye, there is a uniquely original pattern and signature style which they nearly all share.
His technique was so distinctive that investment bank ING, working with J. Walter Thompson, were recently able to programme an AI machine to paint a completely new, ‘original’ Rembrandt portrait that looks, at first glance, indistinguishable from the kind of thing he would have created himself. For all his genius, Rembrandt was fairly predictable.
Picasso, on the other hand was highly creative. His style was anything but monolithic and evolved via highly differentiated periods throughout his life. His approach was so mercurial that it’s hard to recognise that the same artist who painted the Cubist Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 also painted the Realist First Communion in 1896. For all his genius, Picasso was pretty inconsistent.
Some brands are like Rembrandt. They keep returning to their original philosophy whenever they articulate their offer. Brands like Nike for example, have consistently run the same Just Do It tag for over 25 years. The Ultimate Driving Machine has similarly been the endline for one of the biggest automotive players since the 1970s. There’s probably no need to say who it belongs to.
Other brands are more like Picasso. Reebok, for example, have changed their endline over a dozen times in the same period as Nike have held firm. Can you bring their current line to mind? Similarly, O2 have recently changed their positioning to be around 'More for You', having put down their 'Be more Dog' line of the last three years. Shortly before that, it had 'Fresh thinking, new possibilities', before that was 'We’re better, connected', before that was 'See what you can do'. Their various campaigns based on each new take have won a number of trophies and been celebrated for their clever, creative conceits.
So is it better for a brand to be more like Rembrandt or Picasso?
There is clearly a natural bias for ambitious agencies to push for the bolder Picasso approach - for the simple reason that it's harder to grow revenue and reputation or to win awards by running creative variants on an original theme.
But there is a key problem with the Picasso model.
Each new creative shift will struggle to capitalise on the brand equity built up over years from the previous line, or lines. As marketing professionals, it’s easy to imagine that consumers are as obsessed as we are about our brand’s essential encapsulation. In reality, most of us hardly give it a second thought. Every religion requires their faithful to regularly repeat a set series of sentences, or a creed, every week, or even many times each day. They aren't trying to be unimaginative or to bore us. They ask us to repeat the same few words ad nauseam because they’re painfully aware how easily distracted and forgetful we are - even about the things that are supposedly most important in our lives, let alone which shower gel or mobile provider we choose.
This is where endlines that pithily encapsulate the philosophy and purpose of the brand and that have become deeply embedded in public consciousness really come into their own. Lines such as 'Never Knowingly Undersold', 'Every Little Helps', or 'Campaign for Real Beauty' have proved to be incredibly powerful assets, and only become more so, the longer they run.
Many consumers may well enjoy and remember individual Picasso style endlines. But they may struggle to associate the tag with the brand when there isn’t an especially sticky link between the brand’s core activity and that endline. Arguably, Be more Dog could have been an equally effective line for Pedigree, Millets or even Lastminute.com.
To have a highly original brand endline will still, of course, involve the need to be creative, within set boundaries. But playing around too often with how the brand articulates its core mission can result in losing track of that essence which makes a brand original in the first place.
Some brands really do need a shot in the arm and to be woken from a creative torpor with some help from Picasso, but most really don't. A better mantra for many brands might be not 'Be more Dog', but 'Be more Rembrandt'.
Ewen Haldane is business director at The School of Life.