The Great Divide in America today isn't between the red states and the blue states on the televised election map. Neither is it about science versus the humanities, abortion versus choice, PCs versus Macs, or any other alleged cultural chasm. The real gulf in this country today is between those who walk around in a state of ironic vigilance, where every reference is shot through with subtext, and those who don't. It's the Leno-Letterman gap. Iconic versus ironic.
The consumer world increasingly reflects those two groupings. And why wouldn't it? Brands mirror who we are -- and there is little doubt that some of us see the world as a cycle of self-commentary, while others don't. (Consider the polarizing nature of the HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm.)
Iconic brands swell with pride about their "leadership roles," which can be historic, like Coca-Cola, or recent and undeniable, like Microsoft. They take themselves really, really seriously. At the same time, they can't distance themselves from their own identity or poke even gentle fun in their own direction. By contrast, ironic brands glint with a wink-wink. They take on a conspiratorial, subversive slyness that puts the product and its customers in a special club. Shared self-commentary is the name of the game.
Once you start thinking about brands in that context, the distinctions become clear: IBM and Apple, Wal-Mart and Target, Lipton and Snapple, Mercedes and BMW. The BMW Mini with its wry quotations of automotive designs of the past represents a complex aesthetic package of footnotes that an iconic and conservative Mercedes-Benz wouldn't feel comfortable with making. And then there is Volkswagen, whose original Beetle grounded itself in opposition to Detroit's steel and fins, and whose reborn Beetle continued that hyperconscious realization of its position in the automotive taxonomy. Sometimes the same parent company can animate both iconic and ironic. Gap Inc. is all about a classical iconic look -- consider the legends it has used in its advertising: Willie Nelson, Joan Didion. Old Navy, meanwhile, drips with irony. It's new, but cannily designed with a heavy dose of retro.
The case of Burberry shifts the perspective. Here, a classic reinvented itself by turning itself inside out. Literally. By taking its traditional plaid lining and transforming it into a fashion statement -- used in everything from pants to purses -- its semiotics were no less than an ironic statement about British understatement. Yet how many of the young people who are buying the goods, or the plentiful knockoffs, even get the self-referential message?
Ironic branding involves a strategic refusal to take things too seriously, even when the underlying business is serious. A splendid example is JetBlue, whose foil is the once-iconic airlines -- those failed fleets with grandiose names and visions, Trans this, United that, Pan the other thing. JetBlue, which writes its name in the lowercase (a foolproof marker for irony) has modest goals and is proud of them. It speaks in a different kind of voice for an airline. (If United Airlines adopted an ironist perspective, its advertising would now read "Try our new bankruptcy fares. Meals, you want meals? We're lucky we can afford fuel.")
What can we make of all this? Brands in the middle have to choose up sides; there is no room for ambiguity. And this new world of iconic and ironic brands presents challenges to classically trained marketers. Business school doesn't teach you about subverting your brand, about instructing people not to buy your product as a way to attract them. Maybe the conventional "unique selling proposition" will become the unique un-selling proposition. Now, that would really be ironic, wouldn't it?
Contributor Adam Hanft is president of Hanft Byrne Raboy, a Manhattan-based advertising and marketing firm.
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