How Mad Men can help you understand brand

Image of Mel on 60s TV

Mel joined the Rusty Monkey team in November 2018 as our in-house content and brand communication expert. Her catalogue of achievements are nothing short of amazing: a BA (Hons) in English with Creative Writing, a Masters and PhD in English Literature, and five years as an editor at Games Workshop.

Mel is passionate about communication, using both words and visuals. She believes that the best way to make your brand successful is through creating a connection with your audience.

We invited Mel to write a thought piece on brand theory - and what better icon of advertising is there than Don Draper, lead character of the hit show Mad Men? Although it's set back in the 60s, many of the brand philosophies exhibited in the show are still relevant today. Read on to learn how some of Don Draper's famous pitches tie in to our real-life brand theory here at Rusty Monkey.

What I learned from Mad Men about brand theory

Monkey contributor: Mel

A few years before I got into marketing and branding, I sat down and binge-watched all 7 seasons of the award-winning TV show Mad Men (2007-2015). In case you never saw it, this is  the story of a New York ad agency in the 1960s - back when the advertising gurus of Madison Avenue branded themselves as 'Mad Men' - whose creative director Don Draper is a flawed and troubled genius, an apparent savante whose instinctive understanding of buyer psychology outshines all the other highly questionable character traits he possesses.

Now that I know more about the theory of branding, I am able to look back on moments from the TV show with a new understanding. Don Draper was not a savante, but a mere mortal like the rest of us - the tools to come up with what seemed like ground-breaking ideas in the show are available to us all, and the core philosophies of branding that Don Draper followed in Mad Men are all around us today. Although the show is set so convincingly in the mid-twentieth century that I at times caught myself trying to work out how old actor Jon Hamm must be now before realising he's still in his 40s because this show was only made a few years ago, much of the brand philosophy it brings to life is still very relevant today. The workplace drinking, horrible attitudes towards women and old-fashioned 'men's club' mentalities are as dated as the costumes, but in terms of what Don Draper can teach us about branding today, this show is basically a really long and entertaining handbook.

Illustration of Don Draper

One of the most famous examples of Draper's insights saving the day is in the very first episode, where the agency is given the unenviable task of making their client's - real-world tobacco company Lucky Strike - cigarettes appealing to buyers right on the heels of the massive revelation that smoking causes cancer. Junior associate Pete Campbell tries to sell the client a death-wish driven campaign that says, 'You're going to die anyway, so why not die with a cigarette between your lips?' which unsurprisingly backfires.

With the client about to walk out the door, Don Draper stands up and asks them to describe the process that goes into making their tobacco.

'We breed insect-repellent tobacco seeds, plant 'em in the North Carolina sunshine, grow it, cut it, cure it, toast it--'

At this point, Don Draper interrupts him. 'There you go,' he says, writing the slogan, 'It's toasted' on the blackboard. 'Everybody else's tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike's is toasted.'

Don Draper knows that if Lucky Strike even mentions the health detriments of smoking, people won't want to buy their cigarettes. So his answer to the client's question of how they deal with the bad press of the government's new health warnings is to just not talk about it at all.

Watch the clip.

The Lucky Strike example is dubious because it makes us feel cynical about marketing, makes us feel like marketing agencies will sell anything, even if it's bad for you, bad for the planet, morally corrupt, and so on. But this isn't a piece about the moral obligation companies have to be better for their consumers (maybe I'll write that another day) - it's about the theory of branding.

As Don Draper soliloquises,

'Advertising is based on one thing. Happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing, it's okay. You are okay.'

Dude, Breathe sticker on a post

No matter what industry you are in, no matter what product or service you have, no matter who your customer is, you are selling happiness. Maybe it is as obvious as a new car - that feeling of luxury, of freedom, is easy to evoke in advertising, which is why cars are such a valuable and easy-selling commodity. But maybe for you it's less obvious. Maybe your company makes circuit boards, or toilet flush mechanisms, or battery packs, or pencil erasers. At first glance, it feels like these items have a very specific, maybe even mechanical purpose. But ultimately, everything we as human beings design, engineer and make - every little thing - is in some way aimed at making life easier, making things work better, making people happier.

If you're getting dragged into a conversation that makes people feel unhappy or uncomfortable about your brand, you need to change the conversation. It's a mantra that comes up a few times in Mad Men, and it's something we advise our clients regularly. 'If you don't like what is being said, change the conversation.'

Don Draper knows that he can't sell cigarettes by comparing how much less cancer you might get from smoking a Lucky Strike versus a Marlboro. His client asks him how to answer the question, 'Are cigarettes unhealthy?' but instead of answering it, he changes the conversation. Everyone knows cigarettes are unhealthy - it's not about concealing that fact. But people will buy cigarettes anyway, because, as Draper observes earlier in the episode, 'people love smoking'. While all the other companies are squabbling about how healthy or not their tobacco is, Lucky Strike are simply saying, 'Whatever you're doing, it's okay. You are okay.'

Lucky Strike Cigarette poster

Again, dubious subject matter, but the theory is still sound. If you don't like the conversations you're having, change what you say.

The power of a great brand is that you get to tell your own story. It's easy to fall into the trap of comparing features. Competing companies who make essentially the same product will list endless features that prove that their product is better than the other one, but the human brain can only process a certain amount of information. I don't know about you, but when I'm looking for a new washing machine, I switch off after the first couple of bullet points.

If all you do is compare features, you're encouraging your customers to do the same. They might start asking you, 'Why should I buy your product when this other one has all the same features and it's £20 cheaper?' You've ended up in a sort-by-price race to the bottom. Not a good place to be.

You have two options here. Either you drop your price by £21, or you explain why your product is £20 more expensive. And I don't mean by listing features. I mean by telling them how your product will make them happier, make their life easier, bring them more value. What do those features mean for them?

'Well, if cost is all you care about, you can go for the cheaper option. But if you want [this amazing experience], you'll buy from us.'

Don't get caught in the war of competing features - it's endless, and no-one can ever really win. Instead, change the conversation.

When we get a new client, we show them a short clip from a TED talk delivered by Simon Sinek (who's a bit of a hero of ours; check out his books). He talks about something called the Golden Circle - and we talk about this a lot in our vlogs so I won't go into loads of detail. Ultimately, he's saying very much the same thing that Don Draper is saying. He tells us, 'People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it. [...] The aim is not to sell to people who want what you have, the aim is to sell to people who believe what you believe.'

Why sign

If you understand why your company exists, why it produces the products it does, then you can start communicating in a different way. (And I don't mean profit. Profit is a result, it's not a reason.) We give our clients an exercise to come up with their 'why' message, their core belief. And it's hard, it's really hard. We struggled for a long time to identify our own. That's because we're all so hard-wired to sell what we do that we lose sight of why we do it. We don't even think about it.

But Don Draper has given us a tool here that makes this exercise easy.

How does your product make people happier?

You might have to get through layers and layers of product complexity and supply chains and manufacture chains before you finally get there, but somewhere out there is a person who is happier as a result of the thing you make. All you need to do is tell that story.

And watch Mad Men.

Contact us for advice on your branding

Image of Mel

Meet Mel

Q: Can you tell us a bit about how you ended up in writing and marketing?

A: I've always loved working with words, as I think is evidenced by my education and career so far! I'm fascinated by the way we can use language to invoke certain feelings, and how we can play with language to create new meanings. One of my favourite books is Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban, which is written entirely in an imagined post-apocalyptic pidgeon English, and the way it demonstrates how language can be so slippery in the way it conveys meaning is really exciting. This fascination led me to creative writing. With regards marketing, to be perfectly honest, I've always been highly cynical about it. It feels like there's a lot of dishonesty in marketing, a lot of superficiality. But it doesn't have to be that way. That's why I'm passionate about telling the real stories behind the brand, making the real connection with the audience, bringing real value. Focusing on people over profit.

Q: What are the most interesting things you've learnt in your first year at Rusty Monkey?

A: It's been great to be able to learn a bit of graphic design, because I've always been restricted to just dealing with the words in the past. I think the synergy of words and images is so important, you really can't just work on one in isolation. They're a package deal.

Q: You've said you like brands that communicate well. Can you list some of your favourites?

A: Dr Martens, definitely. Even if I didn't like their boots, I'd have to recognise the brilliance of their brand. It really is a masterclass in branding. I was in Camden this weekend and popped into their store there - they have a stage for live bands to play on and a mini-museum that tells with real passion the story of their brand. I actually found myself welling up a bit. That's what you want. I also love Cyberdog - I love how playful they are with their brand and products, and their store in Camden is also a fantastic experience. What both of them do really well is giving you something more than just their products - it's really about feeling part of something special.

Q: What are your top tips for getting tone of voice branding right?

A: It's all about your audience. You have to really get to know them. Don't try to appeal to everybody - figure out who your desired target audience is and talk directly to them. Even use the language they use when they're talking to each other. It doesn't matter if you alienate 90% of the people who read your stuff, because that other 10% will love you so much that they'll stay loyal to you for a long time. Also, stand out. Don't be vanilla. Be interesting.

Q: Where do you source your inspiration from?

A: Kurt Vonnegut is my hero. He's an absolute master in communicating complex emotions in just a few words. His books are quite short, but there's so much story in there. Breakfast of Champions (1973) is a brilliant critique of mid-twentieth-century capitalist America (much like Mad Men). I'm also fascinated by modern philosophy - Jean Baudrillard's work can teach us a lot about digital and virtual societies (did you know his book Simulacra and Simulation [1981] partly inspired The Matrix?). One of the best pieces of journalism I have ever read is John Hersey's piece on Hiroshima (1946). If you haven't already read it, please do - it's available in full on the New Yorker's website and it may well change your life. None of these are marketing pieces, but they are exquisite examples of communication. I'm also going to mention Orson Welles' adaptation of  The War of the Worlds (1938) - although it wasn't quite as explosive as the media made out at the time, it was a visionary piece of broadcasting. It did something totally new, and I'm not sure anything else has quite achieved what it did since. You can listen to it in full on Wikipedia, which is pretty cool. Make sure you've got a sofa to hide behind.

We don't mean to brag, but Mel's skills don't stop there. If you love her writing as much as we do, she has a fantastic blog with a selected collection of her creative work.

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