Whole Brands: When the Idea Fits the Experience

My colleague, Alice lives in New York and has an astonishing photography collection. She invited me to see it a while ago, and I was staggered at the breadth of the collection. But the piece that really knocked me out was the Piss Christ by Andres Serrano, one in a series of Serrano’s photographs where the icon is submerged in a vile of the artist’s blood and urine, hence the name Piss Christ. And yes, it’s the same photograph that gave Jessie Helms his national censorship platform and nearly zeroed out the National Endowment for the Arts.

For me, the piece was breathtaking. (Full disclosure: I am a practicing Roman Catholic highly suspectible to guilt and incense.) So by rights, I should have been violently offended by the image. Instead, I stood in Alice’s hallway where it hung and couldn’t tear myself away. She finally broke the spell by offering a cup of tea.

So what gives? Why can something that is so abhorrent in principal be so beautiful when we experience it?

Because the idea of something is not the same as something. When the idea of something is sympatico with the experience of it, the effect is magical. When they diverge it can result in several things. It can create a niche of fervor–a cult following the likes of which Malcom Gladwell describes. Or, it can leave people feeling confused and unfulfilled. The accumulation of which leads to cynicism. In which case, the experience trumps the idea. Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her bestseller, Eat, Pray Love, that the renaissance was possible when the Italians had experienced the perverse corruption of the Emperors because when nothing could be trusted, people decided to trust what they could experience–beauty.

And so it goes for the RenGen, too. As a witness to the political circus currently on display, I can see that when the ideas and the experience people have are in harmony, namely that we live in a society where tri-racial people exist and thrive, where men and women share power–magic is possible. When the ideas rest on a definition of American life that feels contrary to people’s experiences–it’s a dud.

For anyone dreaming of what to create, sell, or promote next, paying attention to the chemistry between the ideas and the experience of the brand is one of the basics that can produce a masterpiece, which always speaks for itself.