Sunday, October 18, 2009

Contradictions work

Sometime back I was listening to a western classical music program on the radio. Before you jump to the conclusion that I am some kind of music buff, I wish to squelch it. I am not but I listen to all kinds of music. What I like about this particular program are the interesting details the RJ shares about the composer and the respective composition. The RJ was talking about a piece by Brahms, ‘German Requiem’, that he considered a masterpiece. He described the inherent contradiction in the composition as ‘profound gravity of magisterial sadness tinged with solemn optimism’. He went on to say that all great composers were a bundle of contradictions and that somehow these contradictions made its way into their composition. This made the composition interesting and sometimes it even became a masterpiece.
It will not be wrong to say that it is contradictions that make people interesting and interesting people even more interesting. This holds true for brands and it is something we can help create or so I feel.
If it is so, why are we then afraid to play with contradictions when it comes to brands?
We do create a contradiction of sorts. It is in the yawning gap between intent, like personality or DNA for the brand, and the actual output. When I say output I am not just talking about communication. It covers everything - product, packaging, distribution/retailing, pricing and communication.
I am aware that contradiction for the sake of it can be extremely dangerous and can make someone (or something) seem hypocritical.
However, there is another aspect of contradictions that is probably desirable, especially for a brand. Contradictions can create dissonance which when handled well can be disruptive. Greater the level of contradictions, greater the disruption and greater is the likelihood of success. The classic Beetle case study best exemplifies this. There was a contradiction, violent one at that, in the product for a market like US in the ‘60’s. And yet the contradiction was used to Beetle’s advantage in communication and the rest is history.
In recent times, Google is a company that is constantly playing with contradictions. On the one hand Google has grown into a large corporation with the accompanying baggage in perception (‘evil’, ‘monopoly’) and yet it actively encourages open-source philosophy in development which is antithesis to everything a large corporation is. Somehow I get the feeling that the contradictions within Google are by design and enable them to create tremors even for a small launch. So far, Google has managed it reasonably well. I really admire that and wish more companies (and brands) dared to create and play with contradictions.
But then we have been conditioned into thinking that predictability is a desired virtue for brands. The repercussion of this is that over a period of time we have created clones of products and brands across categories. One could argue that a lot is at stake and therefore being ‘unpredictable’ because of contradictions is harmful. Maybe sometimes. 

All I can say to all those who harbor a doubt about whether contradictions work or not. There is proof. And it is over 10000 years old. 


(Image courtesy: modio)


  1. Good taste and humor are a contradiction in terms, like a chaste whore - Malcolm Muggeridge

  2. :) Wouldn't that be an oxymoron of sorts or is contradiction is close cousin of oxymoron. Thanks Charles for the visit and input!