A lesson for brands in emotion, symbolism and the power of shared experience

Mark Borkowski is founder and head of Borkowski PR. You can find him on Twitter @MarkBorkowski

November saw one of those mass displays of emotion that occasionally catches Britain by surprise. By the time the poppy installation closed, more than 4,000,000 people had queued to see Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the river of ceramic poppies which appeared to surge so majestically around the moat of the Tower of London. Recollection and emotion are inextricably linked of course.

The Tower of London poppy display

Perhaps the collective emotion started with Diana. The crowd mourning outside Kensington Palace symbolised that moment when the switch tripped, the occasion when what had changed over the years became visible, and as social media has spawned since then, we have come to understand this in a more tangible way – the powerful collective emotion of the crowd. Diana of course, knew how to tap into that emotion and leverage it to spread the latest meme.

The death of Diana gave permission for people both to feel and to express emotion in a ritualised way. In Roman Catholic countries this is common enough, but in Protestant northern Europe we suppressed collective exhibitions of emotion, perhaps fearing their outcome or the fact that actually, the emotion was a creation of the media.

That may be so, but you could also argue that as our lives have become more private and fragmented maybe there is a really need now for shared and public experiences.

To that end let’s examine the extraordinary power of the motif. The meme of the poppy has continued to grow in strength over the last one hundred years. Whatever your view on the installation, its great success has been the fact that it has got people talking about war – old and new.

In the same vein as Ai Wei Wei's sunflower seed sculpture shown at the Tate Modern, the moat of handcrafted poppies invites the viewer to contemplate both the mass horror of war and the profound loss of each precious individual.

The danger in this method, of course, is that it can be perceived to be reductive. We have become so familiar with the symbol of the poppy, that some would argue that along the passage of time we have forgotten the grisly truth that it points to.

Whilst there is a strong argument for a greater focus to be placed upon the actual lives, art work, and biographical accounts of those who fought in the wars, the public art should not be dismissed entirely as red-washing.

In creating this work, Paul Cummins appealed to the collective consciousness of Britain in its deep-seated taste for nostalgia. They created a visual event to be photographed, tweeted, and shared, inviting people to talk about their experience and to debate their views. Being of traditional Derby pottery, they nod to our love of 'Made in Britain', and have been credited with rejuvenating one of our oldest industries.

The fact that the poppies have all been sold worldwide adds another petal to the piece, as it has guaranteed further column inches and word-of-mouth stories for months to come. The sale of the poppies is said to have raked in £15m in proceeds for the Royal British Legion.

In the past a story may have taken generations to gain a foothold – but today the internet has allowed for overwhelming speed of communication. But this pace of dissemination comes at a high price and a story can be forgotten as quickly as it is spread.

A brand’s story is outside of its control. The internet put paid to that. Rather than seek to manipulate how the consumer uses the story, companies must recognise the consumer as its author and fabulist, exploring the possibilities of what the crowd can give towards, rather than take away from it.

Stories are important. A story is an idea wrapped in an emotion, and when those emotions are powerful enough they make things happen.

Ultimate power lies in the collective will.

Mark Borkowski is founder and head of Borkowski PR. You can find him on Twitter @MarkBorkowski

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