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The Mythology of Totemic Brands

The Mythology of Totemic Brands

Jennifer Murtell

abstract illustration of sunset over sand dunes

Radical new principles of engagement to help you see your brand more clearly

The universe of brand-building has seen unprecedented change and unrelenting velocity. There are “back to basics” modalities that champion a return to classic equity-first approaches, “eternally fluid” methodologies that attempt to respond to dynamic technology, and a million approaches in between—all trying desperately to keep up with our shifting brand landscapes and increasingly complex brand ecosystems.

In the race to the top of responsive innovation and experience-building, a few recent trends are resurfacing as powerful approaches to the intersection of brand, behavior and psychology. The concept of “tribal branding,” of understanding and activating our collective behaviors and unmet evolutionary needs, cuts through the clutter of motivations, tactics and touchpoints. It may just help you see your brand more clearly.

What Are Totems? 

By definition, a “totem” is a sacred object or symbol for a group of people: a clan, lineage or tribe. While the term totem has roots in the Ojibwe language, the concept isn’t limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas—it’s universal to a number of cultures worldwide. A tribe would often have its own distinctive totem that embodied a group identity and an object of worship. Totems played a transformative role, with altruistic and aspirational characteristics guiding their path toward something better. Totems are unmistakable symbols for human aspiration and desire. This idea is so strongly embedded in our subconscious that it persists today.

What Are Brand Totems? 

Despite its common use, “branding” is a term that resists focused definition. But in our modern context, and with the rise of a more holistic approach to brand experiences, the short-form definition of branding mirrors Marty Neumeier’s quote from his book, “The Brand Gap”: “It’s not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is”—your brand is not defined by those who manage it, rather it is created in the minds, attitudes and perceptions of your 

consumer. This suggests where the control levers lie, and one powerful lever is storytelling. A look at successful modern brands and their most fervent supporters reveals the importance of well-designed narrative concepts. Use of mythmaking devices like allegory (brand story), aura (brand essence), arcadia (idealized community) and antinomy (brand tension) is the “secret sauce” of brands, and its potency has the power to jump over our rationality and tap into our lizard brain. From Tiffany’s turquoise box to the friendly rebellion of the Linux penguin, modern brand equities have the power to tap into our primitive evolutionary codes and create telegraphic language that can mean so much more than the sum of their parts. Consequently, totemic brands are rich with storytelling and emotional resonance, and consumers, romanced by the story, behave as subcultures, as communities – even as religions.

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Why Do Totems Resonate with Us Right Now?

“The Culting of Brands,” a book by Douglas Atkin, provided an early peek into this mythmaking formula. Using cults as a provocative anchoring analogy, Atkin asserts that like cults, brands can inspire consumers to exhibit great devotion or dedication to a person, idea or thing, fueled by innovative ideologies. When cult members experience an intense sense of belonging, they will powerfully advocate for it. In return, the cult dedicates itself to making members feel special, individual and even superior, reframing this separateness as virtue: “You’re different, we’re different too, and different is good.” Similarly, totemic brands replace a culture of need with a culture of desire or worship. Totemic brands take refuge in the world of the sacred and mythological. They transform themselves into modern-day totems through codes that point to a more meaningful existence. This approach elevates brands beyond simple core equities or clever marketing concepts in the consumers’ minds, into a belief system that becomes integral to creating culture and building identity.

Few brands inspire the fervor and dedication as Apple. With every store opening or product launch, Apple consistently draws crowds in the thousands. The brand creates a climate of dizzying anticipation and emotional fuel, with consumers happily reciprocating, demonstrating advocacy by telling their own stories. Store openings have inspired endless social media content, including live countdowns, videos of on-the-street unboxings, fights, even marriage proposals. With every event, brand faith grows.

This kind of devotion, historically relegated to religious fervor, has prompted the media to refer to Apple as a “new religion.” Not surprising is the mythology built around founder Steve Jobs, described as America’s “tech messiah.” Jobs blurred the line between selling and evangelism, selling a distinct vision of the world. Advertising amplified his vision, with strategies that railed against conformity and corporate brainwashing that advocated for liberation, creativity and freedom of expression—think different, just like us. Harley-Davidson leverages the same mythological or religious equation, embedding the virtue of difference into their brand: “Harley Truth #1: Harley is not for everyone.” The iconic motorcycle transforms machine into totem and transforms those identifying with the Harley tribe into virtuous rebels. The motorcycle becomes a marker of identity—a symbol that stands for independent working-class masculinity and outlier freedom. Consequently, the relationship between brand and consumer is neither functional nor instrumental, but deeply symbolic.

abstract illustration of melted objects on sand dunes

Totemic Equities Are Earned, Not Designed 

The search for meaning and connection is distinctly human. Our need to understand the world around us and to find our place in it, is a powerful motivational force. And in our current climate of seismic change and radical uncertainty, we look to cultural markers to guide and keep us connected to each other. Brands that pay attention to the aspirational and emotional desires of consumers as well as our shifting cultural landscape will continue to grow their totemic power. They will respond with brand narratives and experiences worthy of mythmaking—deep, telegraphic meaning that acts as the lens through which the world makes a little more sense. That’s a brand promise.

This is a new and challenging era for brands, where a fractured world looms large in our collective psyche. In this state, brands must think and act in new ways, responding to consumer fears and appeal to their aspirations of hope. Totemic brands offer a new value equation, one that promises to solve problems beyond business, designed for moral leadership, that responds authentically both to their consumers and to the needs of the communities they serve. So how can we reposition our brands and our perspectives, to respond more authentically to the chaos? 

Totemic Transformation Principles 

Six fundamental shifts mark a powerful totemic brand. Consider what your brand can do to shift paradigms in your organization, and make it happen—there’s no time to waste.

  1. Shift from individual to interdependence: Totemic brands push beyond a glib appeal to individualism and ego, into manifestations of interdependence. This shift forces a rethink of old success metrics, championing instead a definition of success defined by the collective, the larger brand ecosystem and creating a virtuous stakeholder circle that prioritizes higher-order human needs and longer-term brand investments over short-term success.
  2. Shift from reactive to proactive: Totemic brands demonstrate the courage to elevate themselves from reactive, fear-based decision-making to adaptive and dynamic strategies that take measured risks that deliver greater value. Decisions grounded in data, consumer insight, core values, purpose and collaboration keep them pointing north and keep them responsive to the inevitability of change.
  3. Shift from listening to feeling: Totemic brands evolve from a position of passive listening into empathetic action, equipped to respond authentically to the deep human truths and dynamic tensions that shape consumers’ lives today. They create the connections needed to bind brand promise to experience. They design products and experiences with people, not for people. They tell stories that move and empower us.
  4. Shift from analysis to action: Totemic brands extricate themselves from analysis-paralysis and push themselves into action. They champion and activate nuances in consumer research, instead of buckling under the pressure of homogeneity. They hold sacred the role they play in the lives they touch, and they transparently address and reconcile past behaviours and historical baggage. Their brand actions are radically transparent.
  5. Shift from perfection to iteration: Totemic brands dispense with unrealistic expectations of perfection and move towards iterative invention. They co-create, evolve and innovate collaboratively. They allow the shifting landscape of today to guide them to tomorrow courageously. They build longer-term strategies that allow for change. They scenario-plan with optimism with an eye on future possibilities.
  6. Shift from power to empowerment: Totemic brands position themselves as enablers of empowerment, not the arbiters of power. They see the world through their consumers’ eyes and respond to their needs and aspirations. They relinquish the illusion of control, understanding that their brand is only as successful as consumers believe. They understand leadership is not about maintaining power, but empowering others toward collective success.

As vice president of strategy, Asia Pacific, at Marks, part of SGS & Co, Jennifer Murtell leverages design thinking to solve business challenges, develops brand portfolio architecture, whitespace models and positioning for a variety of leading consumer packaged goods brands.