There’s a phrase I often use in the studio. I remind the team to “mine the gap.” No, that’s not a typo. I know very well that the voice on the UK tube system advises passengers to mind the gap, meaning to watch their step. This is my attempt at being clever—to focus the team on one of the most important storytelling principles: to purposefully leave out parts of the story.
Great storytellers engage our imagination through subtlety. Alfred Hitchcock required a MacGuffin–a plot point or a reference in the story that the characters recognized as important but was never fully explained for the audience. George Lucas employed a brilliant MacGuffin in Star Wars: Episode IV, when Luke and Obi Wan Kenobi off-handedly describe the Clone Wars. The audience would not know what the Clone Wars were until 30 years later when Lucas dramatized them in the prequel trilogy. It didn’t matter. For most die-hard Star Wars fans the Clone Wars was much more enjoyable as a mysterious bit of storytelling that was never fully explained.
When I say “mine the gap” I’m encouraging the team to rely on a MacGuffin or two; to hint at a part of the narrative that we leave to the imagination of the brand’s audiences. We can hint at these unexplained storylines through design cues, through messaging, and through details incorporated into a brand experience. The Starbucks logo is one such MacGuffin.
Connecting a Siren to Coffee Beans
The mermaid is clearly a nod to the heritage of the name, which is inspired by the name of a character in Melville’s Moby Dick. To really tap the Melville narrative, you might be tempted to use a large whale in the logo. But that’s not mining the gap. That’s not playing with the audience’s imagination. That’s not good brand storytelling. Here’s what Starbucks has to say about why they chose the mermaid:
There was something about her–a seductive mystery mixed with a nautical theme that was exactly what the founders were looking for. A logo was designed around her, and our long relationship with the Siren began.
So, the mermaid/siren became an emblem precisely because she connected to the story the brand wished to tell while still being somewhat ambiguous. She hinted at a mythology–a back story that is never fully explained but deeply sensed.
Why the Titanic Brand Still Draws Us In
A new paper in a soon-to-be-released issue of the Journal of Consumer Research validates this approach. In “Titanic: Consuming the Myths and Meanings of an Ambiguous Brand,” authors Stephen Brown, Pierre McDonagh and Clifford J. Schultz argue that the missing details can often provide a brand with a long life. Their case in point: the Titanic. It continues to capture our imagination even though the disaster at the root of its mythology occurred more than a century ago. They argue that the many unanswered questions about the ill-fated steamship have fueled an appetite for interpretation and imagination. That’s why the brand is still powerful enough to inspire a billionaire to propose building an exact replica to take the seas again.
As first reported in the online journal Live Science, this research challenges some of the most sacred notions in branding–that everything should be clear, concise and coherent. Instead, it brings us back to the MacGuffin. It suggests that the power of myths can elevate an otherwise unfinished story.
the Titanic’s consumer appeal is partly explained by the myths it embodies. The myth of nature trumping technology, the almost biblical lesson that great riches are worthless in life-or-death situations, and the accumulating layers of myth that have been added to the sinking by the Titanic’s portrayal in pop culture.