Before we said our last goodbye to the late, greatest Muhammad Ali recently, I had already started wondering who will be next.
And by inference, so had Time magazine, which ran not one but two covers about Next Generation Leaders and Muhammad Ali. In that order.
What did Time know that the rest of us did not?
But I digress. We’ve said goodbye to Ali, Bowie and Prince in the first half of this year already. They were not just legends but icons of our time. My big worry is that we are running out of icons. And we are running out of icons because we are no longer being challenged in our thinking by today’s cultural stars.
Today’s equivalent are called celebrities; a distant sub-set of legendary or iconic status, which simply feeds in the vacuum of achievement or contribution.
But where are the legends? Where are our cultural Icons of tomorrow?
We remember history through our legends. In mid-century Modern World 1.0, we seemed optimistic and wide-eyed. In the 1950’s a footballer called Pele captured the hearts and minds of an entire generation, a duo of climbers called Hillary and Norgay conquered Mount Everest and the whole picture swung to the rhythm of Elvis Presley’s hips.
John, Paul, George and Ringo wrote the soundtrack to the '60s. In China, Mao Zedong was doing the opposite under the same name and leading a ‘cultural revolution’ all of his own, while Che Geuvara became the symbol of rebellion for the new left, JFK picked up with Marilyn whilst Jimmy Dean drove into a tree.
As humanity po-goed into the '70s, we knew it all. By now bored with our cultural liberty, we decided not to keep investing and we got lost in the purple haze of a decade of dysfunctionality and disillusionment.
By the '80s we were dusting ourselves off and looking toward the future again. Reagan and Thatcher in the West, Deng Xiaoping in the East, both paved the way for a rise in global trade. MTV became a vehicle for the globalisation of music through video and the world and Michael Jackson moonwalked into the stratosphere.
And then came the '90s and the birth of the internet.
We entered the new millennium behaving like the '50s all over again. The last 15 years have been characterised by plenty of zeal and naivety—and then crash after crash—.com 2.0, the financial crisis, recession, all of which has somehow given rise to a new age of super-terrorism.
Legends signify a moment in time. They come from a factory of significant "moments" that as humanity we seem to desperately seek. And I feel as though we are clinging to the last of the immortals.
Who and where are the legends of tomorrow? What are they doing now and what lessons can brands learn from their rise and demise?
From a marketing point of view, legends are so rich in imagery and wordplay that they inspire nothing less than a mix of envy and admiration. Countless brands would die to be known as ‘the greatest’; be spontaneously associated with the colour purple; and to own a property like Bowie’s lightning flash.
It is considered de rigeur for brands to become part of the cultural conversation. For many brands, however, there is such a lack of a ‘cultural being’ that the only strategy is to associate themselves, to ride on the coat tails of icons…which is a very dangerous path to take.
We saw it happen when a rubbery, bubble-shaped brand of shoes with no connection with David Bowie superimposed his signature lightning bolt over a white clog. Such was the backlash and derision that Crocs was compelled to apologise and remove the tweet within 30 minutes. When Chevrolet thought that Prince’s mention of its Corvette in a song was an endorsement it could resurrect upon his passage, it may have anticipated the sharply divided opinion over their Little Red Corvette condolence tweet, from ‘doesn't feel tacky’ to ‘awful in every way’.
But in today’s marketing world, brands have to do it themselves. It’s ok to be opportunist, but they have to build and stand for something real and lasting for fear of becoming as transient as the consumers they serve.
Through the decades, marketers have gone from coining Baby Boomers to Gen X to Gen Y to the ‘me’ generation to the (really annoying) Millennials.
And yet now we seem to have moved from 'The Me Generation' to 'The Meh Generation.'
They know it all, have seen it all and just seem quite bored by everything. They offer no sharp cultural things to get your teeth into (least of all Kim Kardashian's arse!!). And this is part of the reason Icons are having trouble budding and taking root. It’s as much about the audience as the performers themselves. They are all on the same side.
Look at what we’ve got. I don’t think you can really call David Beckham a legend, can you? And for all his feats on the court, what culturally significant values could Novak Djokovic represent that might potentially put him up there with Ali? Lady Gaga may be culturally influential, but is she a legend with the same impact as Mick Jagger?
On the other hand, there is one from amongst the millennials: Malala Yousufzai, whose story of survival, passion and influence indeed make her legendary. But she has a long way to go before she becomes culturally beatified.
The general ‘Lack of Amazement’ in the world right now means that brands need to dig deep into our collective psyche to try and uncover the epochal changes that are transforming us. Even if they aren’t immediately apparent.
So when is it not meh to mourn? It’s when you have had a long, inseparable association with a legend. Nike and Michael Jordan. Fender and Slash. Fila and Bjorn Borg. Calvin Klein and Brooke Shields (well, ok, not exactly a legend).
For Ali, probably only Everlast (maker of boxing clothing and equipment) that is entitled to mourn his passing, but wisely, it has not done so.
As our memory and attention spans diminish, as Andy Warhol’s prediction of 15 minutes of fame becomes 15 seconds of fame, every passage reminds us of the timeless appeal of legends. It is the emotional bonds that they were able to create, the stories around their triumphs and tribulations which made them so enduring.
So, instead of thinking how to be relevant to these ephemeral moments, brands need to think and act with the ambition of living forever. Brands need to amaze people, in order to engage them, just as the legends do (or did)—not only in their chosen field, but also through the impact on the culture.
How can your brand be remembered and loved for generations, not just a day?
David Mayo is regional group chief marketing officer for Ogilvy & Mather and CEO of Bates CHI & Partners