Move Any Mountain?

John Lennon said that ‘God is a concept by which we measure our fame.’

Perhaps. But songs are a concept by which we measure our age.

The Shamen’s seminal En-Tact album is 25 years old.

Twenty. Five. Years. Old.

Anyway, I rediscovered it this week, along with a series of very happy teenage memories of adventure and discovery. Mainly girls and cider, as it happens.

Musically, the album doesn’t stand the test of time too well. There’s the odd strong song, but what is more impressive is The Shamen’s very clear visual identity: a powerful and ownable wordmark, which was always super-imposed onto some kick-ass, post-Kraftwerk geometric graphic. If I’m honest, in the end, I think even the teenage me came to love the visual identity more than the music.

In marketing we talk about visual identity a lot. But I’m still not sure that we truly understand its power.

The truth is that the any human entity that is designed to exist beyond the self – and to last – needs something with which other people can readily identify. Sound and smell matter (again – more than we think), as does touch; but it’s our eyes that, sensing-wise, we rely on most.

The Romans knew this, with their eagles and uniforms and SPQRs – so much so that the Nazis, recognising the importance of visual identity, had a good crack at bringing it all back in the 20th Century. Successful nation states, of course, do it par excellence. Nothing says ‘freedom’ like the stars n’ stripes. Indeed, visual identity becomes even more paramount where, as in the USA, one is trying to bring together multiple, diverse groups.

In this vein, the Aztecs ruled over an empire of some 19 million people, who spoke over a dozen different dialects. They did this by the careful and highly deliberate development of a whole visual language which cut across all the spoken dialect groups and ensured that the continued hegemony of the ruling elite. For a while. Because then Cortés turned up… with what is arguably the greatest visual identity of all time.

Because if you really want to understand this area, study the religions. They are the masters of visual identity.

The sophistication with which all the great religions have imbued simple symbols with deep meaning is simply magnificent; an example to us all.

Take Cortés’ cross. Originally ‘inspired’ by the ancient Egpytian ‘ankh’, the symbol for life itself, the Christian cross pulls off an incredible trick in terms of the amount of data communicated through such a simple shape. On the one hand, we have the obvious, and excruciating, sacrifice ‘for our sins’. But then we also have the reminder of the world’s best ever ‘comeback’, and the offer of everlasting life for ourselves too. Meanwhile, the three points across the top of the cross make sure we don’t forget the importance of the holy trinity – father, son, ghost.

You don’t need to bother god very often (or even at all) in order to appreciate the redacted, nuanced brilliance of this – nor the fact that its all neatly packaged in one infinitely reproducible shape. Genius. It’s no wonder Christianity ‘went viral’: the Greatest Story Ever Told owes at least much to its countless ‘art directors’ over the years as it does to the original copywriters.

Similarly, consider Taoism’s apparently effortless, but hugely profound, yin and yang. Or the cosmically holistic significance of Hinduism’s Shiva, the Lord of the Dance. Or the ‘Michelangelo-come-and-have-a-go-if-you-think-you-are-hard-enough’ challenge laid down by the deeply symbolic composition of a Jewish Seder plate. Meanwhile, every mosque, everywhere in the world, contains a ‘niche’ – reminding the faithful of the direction of Mecca, birthplace of the religion’s founder.

It was, of course, the Prophet for whom mountains did not move. As I was recently reminded by Spotify, the Shamen, manifestly, did not agree.

It doesn’t really matter either way.

Because the only mountain that marketers should be thinking about, visual identity-wise, is the one that they have to climb.

– this piece first kindly published by The Marketing Society

Monticello LLP