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ABSTRACT

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. OCEANIC OBJECTIVES
  4. SYNOPTIC TITANIC
  5. A BRAND ON SHIP
  6. GO FIGURE
  7. SINKING FEELING
  8. FOREGONE CONCLUSION
  9. REFERENCES

Personification, according to MacKay, is the prototypical metaphor we live by. It is also inescapably gendered. This paper examines the gendering of one of the biggest brands on earth: the Titanic. In the century since the steamship's sinking, “she” has been enshrined in many female stereotypes from virtuous virgin to malevolent man-eater. Although many might regard these representations as regressive and reprehensible, it is arguable that Titanic's polysemous pulchritude is what makes “her” an outstanding brand. For the inhabitants of the icon's “birthplace” at least.

Age cannot wither her, nor custom staleHer infinite variety. Other women cloyThe appetites they feed, but she makes hungryWhere most she satisfies.

—William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

A few months ago, at a fundraiser for Haitian earthquake victims, I ran into an interesting self-made man. Keen to talk, in the way that assiduous networkers are these days, he rattled through his remarkable career as an oil rigger, steel worker, bar owner, law enforcement officer, and, to cap it all, outdoor advertising agent. At one point, his company had a near monopoly over Irish billboards, everything from gigantic city center jumbotrons to puny promotional placards on shopping carts. Seeking fresh challenges, he sold up prior to the great recession and sank everything into Scottish wind farms, the energy source of the future. An unanticipated ill-wind blew through his Highland venture, however, and he lost everything bar the shirt on his back. Undeterred, he went back to billboards, concentrating on blockbuster poster sites adjacent to heavily trafficked arterial routes.

When I finally got a word in edgeways, I politely asked about the future for posters. What with online eating outdoor's lunch, its prospects couldn't be particularly propitious. Could they? Pausing in mid-flow, he conceded that Google had been a game changer, but insisted that it was hard to beat an enormous “destination” display, provided it had personality. Personality, he proclaimed, was the secret of success in the billboard business, and not just any old personality. There was more to it than the personality of the brand being advertised. The personality of the physical billboard—as articulated in its size, shape, site, situation, special features and so forth—was just as important as the actual product or service being promoted. The ideal was when brand and billboard were in harmony, with complementary personalities that synergized into an eye-catching, customer-captivating commercial combination.

As a lecturer in brands and branding, I appreciate the power of personality and personification. My modules are predicated on the premise that brands are living things, complete with anatomies, identities, genealogies, and life cycles. Academic purists, admittedly, often pour scorn on claims that brands are animate, sensate, likeable, and the like (e.g., Avis, Aitken, & Ferguson, 2012; Romaniuk & Ehrenberg, 2012). But it is an approach that appeals to my students, and professional branding consultants employ with impunity (Plummer, 1984; Rapaille, 2006; Upshaw, 1995). I, for one, have no problem whatsoever with brand personifications—especially for pedagogic purposes—though even I baulked at the idea of a living, breathing billboard.

Until I visited one of his sites, that is. After our conversation, I drove past his “poster with personality.” And, I have to admit, he had a point. This billboard, by far the biggest in Belfast, and situated at by far the busiest junction in the city, featured by far the biggest thing ever to come out of my home town: Titanic. The centenary of the sinking was fast approaching. A massive visitors’ center was about to open. The city, once renowned for its riots and rubble, was repositioning itself as Titanic Town, the birthplace of an unsinkable brand. His billboard reflected this fact. A masterpiece of advertising art, it looked just like the legendary liner, with smoke-belching funnels, brightly illuminated portholes and a brace of replica lifeboats. Although his titanic billboard didn't actually sink, as such, it didn't really need to because the epic scale of the 1912 disaster was evoked by its supersized representation. Belfast's responsibility for what happened, furthermore, was encapsulated in the accompanying strapline: “She Was Fine When She Left Here.”

OCEANIC OBJECTIVES

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. OCEANIC OBJECTIVES
  4. SYNOPTIC TITANIC
  5. A BRAND ON SHIP
  6. GO FIGURE
  7. SINKING FEELING
  8. FOREGONE CONCLUSION
  9. REFERENCES

As one does, I mentioned my outdoor epiphany to a group of postgraduate students. Unimpressed, they raised two objections to my poster personified story. Titanic's status as a brand was called into question, as was the sexism of the slogan. Since when did catastrophes count as brands? Why should a ship be a “she?” These are perfectly reasonable objections, I'm sure you agree. They go to the heart of this special issue of Psychology & Marketing, since the nature and scope of branding and personification are underdetermined in marketing thought. This paper, therefore, proposes to explore the range and reach of both. It does so through an extended case study of RMS Titanic, the most famous ship in history after Noah's Ark (Cameron, 2011). As we shall see, this reveals that the liner's brand credentials are equivocal. Her personifications, moreover, are multifarious. Profusion and confusion are the watchwords, though these attributes are not necessarily brand negatives. On the contrary, they are part of the reason why this Cleopatra of Calamities continues to captivate countless consumers a century after she struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sailed into immortality (Davenport-Hines, 2012).

My article commences with an overview of the Titanic disaster, thereby ensuring that we're all up to speed with the sinking. It continues with a brief discussion of branding, noting its evolution and broadening, and ever-increasing imprecision, ambiguity, nebulousness. We then turn to the knotty topic of personification, which is no less entangled than branding. These strands are intertwined with Titanic thereafter, thus revealing that there's more to our sunken ship than the unspecific “she” of Belfast's boastful billboard. A wide spectrum of predominantly patriarchal personifications is apparent, from virgin bride to vengeful bitch. This profusion runs counter to the conventional wisdom of branding, which has long elevated singularity over variety, simplicity over complexity, clarity over obscurity, specificity over polysemy. We conclude by contending that it is the very vagueness, the opacity, the enigma, the mystique of RMS Titanic that makes her such a spellbinding brand.

Before weighing anchor, however, it must be stressed that the present paper is predicated on the premises of the liberal arts rather than the social sciences (Holbrook, 1995). As such, it does not claim to provide irrefutable proof, much less a formal model or testable theory, of Titanic's brand standing. Instead of presenting concrete evidence, it tells a compelling story (Twitchell, 2004). It aims to captivate and convince, not verify and validate (Stern, 1989). It makes a provocative case in a precipitous manner (full steam ahead, in other words).

SYNOPTIC TITANIC

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. OCEANIC OBJECTIVES
  4. SYNOPTIC TITANIC
  5. A BRAND ON SHIP
  6. GO FIGURE
  7. SINKING FEELING
  8. FOREGONE CONCLUSION
  9. REFERENCES

Built in Belfast, Ireland, Titanic was the largest moving object on earth at the time of her maiden voyage (Barczewski, 2004). She set sail from Southampton, England, on Wednesday, April 10, 1912, en route to New York City. Weather conditions were excellent and, after a few brief stops to pick up passengers in Cherbourg (France) and Queenstown (Ireland), the stupendous White Star liner surged out into the transatlantic sea lanes.

On Sunday 14th, Titanic's wireless operators received several ice warnings from nearby ships. Some but not all of these were passed on to Captain E. J. Smith. Those that were, were ignored. Worse still, Smith's lookouts failed to spot an iceberg in the darkness. Despite attempts to take evasive action, Titanic received a glancing blow from the berg. It was 11:40 p.m. Less than two-and-a-half hours later, the ship sank beneath the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. There were insufficient lifeboats to accommodate all 2,026 people on board, and many were launched less than full. Only 705 people survived, the highest proportion of whom were women and children and first-class passengers. Approximately 84% of the men in steerage lost their lives.

The chaotic events of that terrible night have been discussed and debated and dissected for decades (see Eaton & Haas, 2011). All manner of myths, moreover, have grown up around the “the greatest and most publicized of all maritime disasters” (Steel, 2012, p. 436). Whether it be the legend of Captain Smith urging panicking passengers to “Be British!” before going down with his ship, or the scurrilous story of J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of White Star Line, who escaped on a lifeboat while dressed as a woman, or the much-recycled fable of the bandsmen playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as the dark waters rose around them, or the still unresolved allegation that steerage passengers were locked down below and denied access to the lifeboats, the lore of the Titanic is inexhaustible (Ward, 2012).

So compelling, indeed, is the ill-starred, ill-steered, ill-fated, ill-favored, allegedly “unsinkable” luxury liner that the iconic craft regularly rises to the forefront of collective consciousness and cultural memory. She first resurfaced during the 1950s, thanks to a bestselling book by advertising copywriter Walter Lord (1955), which was made into an enormously successful feature film, A Night to Remember. The Titanic picked up further steam when Robert Ballard discovered the wreck in September 1985 and whose dramatic undersea photographs triggered a round of renewed interest and egregious exploitation (Ballard, 1995). The momentum increased a decade later when James Cameron's staggeringly expensive movie of the tragedy unexpectedly triumphed at the box office, with worldwide receipts of $1.8 billion and a record haul of 11 Oscars (Lubin, 1999; Sandler & Studlar, 1999).

Top speed, however, was reserved for 2012, when the centenary of the sinking was commemorated with gusto and not a little money-grubbing, especially in cities with a connection to the catastrophe. Southampton opened a brand new Sea City Museum; Cobh (formerly Queenstown) established a Tourist Trail and Heritage Centre; Liverpool, Titanic's home port, told the terrible tale in its Merseyside Maritime Museum; and Belfast, the city that once turned its back on the black sheep of the White Star Line—since the sinking reflected badly on its image as an industrial powerhouse—pushed the boat out like never before. As noted in our introduction, a titanic tourist trap has been built beside the former slipway, graving dock and drawing office of the immemorial vessel (Costecalde & Doherty, 2012). Constructed to the same dimensions as the original liner, Titanic Belfast may or may not be the biggest brand museum in the world but, according to its CEO, it showcases one of the five most famous brands on earth (Kincade, 2011).

A BRAND ON SHIP

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. OCEANIC OBJECTIVES
  4. SYNOPTIC TITANIC
  5. A BRAND ON SHIP
  6. GO FIGURE
  7. SINKING FEELING
  8. FOREGONE CONCLUSION
  9. REFERENCES

Although Google, Microsoft, GE, Coca Cola and Co. would surely query Titanic's claim to branding fame, it is a testament to the ever-broadening boundaries of the b-word. Prior to the Second World War, branding was largely confined to fast moving consumer goods and similar staples: Heinz beans, Ivory soap, Wrigley's gum, Kellogg's cereals, etc. (Sivulka, 2011). Nowadays, branding is everywhere (Heding, Knudtzen, & Bjerre, 2009). The term has been embraced by hospitals, universities, art galleries, police forces, political parties, utility suppliers, religious denominations, rock bands, sports teams, and celebrities A to Z. Indeed, when everything from dirt (Muñiz & Schau, 2005) and diseases (Goldacre, 2012) to panhandlers (Ferris, 2008) and academic paradigms (Arnould & Thompson, 2005) are deemed to be brands, the boundaries of branding are all but boundless (Hirschman, 2010). Even the sky isn't the limit, as the branding of cloud computing bears metaphorical witness.

This broadening of branding is all very well, but it comes at a price. There is no consensus on what branding is, exactly, since scores of incompatible (and often incomprehensible) definitions now exist (see de Chernatony, 2010). These days, it seems that branding means whatever people want it to mean, official AMA definition notwithstanding. The upshot is that the words brands and branding are becoming increasingly amorphous, ambivalent, ambiguous, equivocal (Bengtsson & Ostberg, 2006; Beverland, 2009; Puntoni, Schroeder, & Ritson, 2010). This mounting polysemy is compounded by context creep, the expansion of branding into ever-more diverse domains, communications creep, the showcasing of brands through ever-more media channels, competition creep, the rising tide of battling brands in ever-more product categories, co-creation creep, the involvement of eager prosumers in ever-more branding decisions, clamor creep, the background noise of brand babble in ever-more movies, music videos, TV programs, computer games, comedy routines, graphic novels, and other forms of popular culture; and concept creep, the growing academic interest in branding across ever-more disciplines, which is resulting in ever-more articles, ever-more models, ever-more theories, ever-more opinions, and ever-more diffusion-dependent diffuseness (Banet-Weiser, 2012; Hackley, 2010).

In a world where everything is branded, near enough, Titanic's brand credentials are incontestable. If science, of all things, is “a brand in the same way that Coca-Cola, Apple Computers, Disney and McDonald's are brands” (Brooks, 2011, p. 2), the designation can hardly be denied to a steamship. Yet, denial is exactly what I discovered when the issue was raised during preliminary empirical research for a companion paper. When Titanic's brand standing was discussed with a focus group of French students, for example, the participants responded as follows:

  • Moderator: Is the Titanic a brand?
  • Group: Titanic a brand? A brand of what? Titanic is not a brand. It is the name of a ship. It's the movie, basically … which was kind of sad.

A heritage consultant was equally skeptical during an exploratory interview, drawing a distinction between marketing professionals’ perception and that of the average consumer who tends to see Titanic as tragedy rather than a brand:

The Titanic isn't a brand, not for ordinary people. It's more like an archetype of the, um, perfect disaster. You know that claim about Titanic being one of the top three brands in the world? I checked it out on Google and couldn't find it anywhere. I think the marketing people made it up.

Another Irish informant went even further when the issue arose. Although she acknowledged that Titanic was being branded, big time, by the city of Belfast, the act of doing so was considered exploitative and unconscionable:

Instead of being seen as the disaster that it was, the Titanic is being turned into a goldmine by the management and marketing and entrepreneurial skills of branding consultants. It's sickening.

It thus seems that Titanic occupies an ambivalent position in the brand pantheon. Although professionals are prepared to describe it in branding terms, ordinary people are either bemused by the very idea or deem it disrespectful and disingenuous, not to say disgraceful. Much the same ambivalence emerges with personifications of Titanic.

GO FIGURE

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. OCEANIC OBJECTIVES
  4. SYNOPTIC TITANIC
  5. A BRAND ON SHIP
  6. GO FIGURE
  7. SINKING FEELING
  8. FOREGONE CONCLUSION
  9. REFERENCES

Polysemous Personification

According to Aristotle, personification is the “common practice of giving metaphorical life to lifeless things” (Paxson, 1994, p. 12). For the infamous literary theorist Paul de Man (1986, p. 48), it is “the master trope of poetic discourse,” the figurative mainspring of literary composition and creativity (Turner, 1987). For MacKay (1986), it is the prototypical metaphor we live by (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), by far the most common figure of speech and human communication (among children and adults alike). For J. Hillis Miller, another renowned literary critic, personification is nothing less than the basic building block of narrative. “There can be no storytelling,” he sagaciously observes, “without personification” (Miller 1995, p. 75) and, as Escalas (2004), Holt (2004), Hirschman (2010), Levy (2006), and Woodside (2010) make clear, without storytelling contemporary brand management would be in a serious pickle.

The story of personification is of course closely related to that of anthropomorphism (Brown, 2011). The twin terms are often used synonymously—on Wikipedia for instance—though they differ in one significant way. The word anthropomorphism is preferred in the physical and social sciences, whereas the liberal arts and humanities are personifiers as a rule (Tambling, 2010). This terminological demarcation is not absolute, admittedly. Both intellectual domains utilize both expressions. Attempts to distinguish between the two are not uncommon, what's more. Guthrie (1995) contends that personification is a subset of anthropomorphism, insofar as the former is a deliberate decision on the part of poets and writers, who choose to personify in their works of art. The latter is largely innate or unconscious, an in-built human trait that has been around since the dawn of time and serves as a survival mechanism of sorts. Others have argued that personification is ordinarily reserved for abstractions—Father Time, Uncle Sam, the Grim Reaper, the Three Graces of Beauty, Charm, and Joy—much as anthropomorphism is typically associated with tangible objects, everything from mountains and mailboxes to machinery and meteorites (Abrams, 1993). Yet, others have drawn up comprehensive taxonomies of anthropomorphic personifications and analogous tropes, including substantialization, hypostatization, prosopopeia, animification, reification, apostrophe, ideation, topification, and many more besides (Paxson, 1994).

The manifold forms of personification are perhaps less pertinent to our present concerns than their sheer ubiquity (MacKay, 1986). Although personification is often disparaged in literary circles—as is anthropomorphism in the scientific community (Kennedy, 1992)—largely on account of its association with old-fashioned allegories, heavy-handed morality tales, and the dreaded “pathetic fallacy” (Hecht, 1985; Stern, 1988), the trope pervades art and science and human culture generally. From the cave paintings of Chauvet or Lascaux, though readily identifiable constellations in the heavens—Orion the Hunter, Castor and Pollux, the Seven Sisters, etc.—to the names we bestow upon our pets, cars, homes, and boats, humankind has never been hesitant to personify (Guthrie, 1995).

Above and beyond its pervasiveness, personification tends to be gendered (Paxson, 1998). Whether it be the earliest allegories of the Ancient Greeks or today's ever-burgeoning bestiary of brand mascots, gender assignment is an integral part of personification, and a commonplace of marketing endeavor. Although some consumers are discomfited by marketing's congenital gynomorphism (Davies, Chun, da Silva, & Roper, 2001)—as are feminist consumer researchers (Stevens & Maclaran, 2007)—masculine, feminine, and bisexual branding has long been the norm (Stern, 1993). For every Uncle Ben there is an Aunt Jemima, for every Betty Crocker a Doughboy, for every Mr. Peanut a Ms. Chiquita Banana, for every Barbie a Ken. For every Mr. Clean, moreover, there is a muscular Michelin Man.

In such circumstances, the sexing of ships should come as no surprise, albeit the feminization of seafaring is particularly strongly entrenched. As Eyers (2011, p. 24) explains in his compendium of maritime superstitions, “every kind of nautical craft from a little dinghy to an aircraft carrier is always referred to as ‘she’ even if they are named after a man.” Since the seagoing life is fraught with danger, sailors commonly regard their vessel as a protective mother figure, who not only looks after her children but is blessed with innate navigational ability (hence the fashion for female figureheads during the Age of Exploration). Not every vessel is maternal, mind you, never mind uxorious. Ships have distinctive personalities, which become apparent during the building and fitting-out processes. Some ships’ temperaments are feisty, some are vindictive, some are obstinate or obedient or need breaking in like bucking broncos. The act of naming is no less important, since baptism bestows human agency and responsibilities upon the new-born, though great care is taken when names are assigned. A boat, Eyers (2011) notes, may reject a name she doesn't like and misfortune will plague any attempt to sail her. Conceited names, such as Conqueror or Invincible or Queen of the Ocean, are especially to be avoided—they represent a terrible temptation to Fate—as are names of mythical creatures, meteorological conditions, and words that end in the letter “a” (à la Lusitania, Saratoga or Costa Concordia). The only thing worse, Fate-wise, is failing to christen the craft in an official naming ceremony, where bottles of champagne are traditionally broken on the bow.

Troping Titanic

The foregoing seafaring superstitions, although routinely dismissed by rationalists, go some way toward explaining Titanic's terrible fascination. The ship's name alone was hubristic (Wade, 1986). The Titans were a mythological race of giants who waged war against Olympus, only to be defeated by Zeus and consigned to a watery limbo beneath Tartarus (Lord, 1986). RMS Titanic, what's more, was not ceremoniously christened with champagne by the White Star Line. She was launched with very little fanfare or fuss. Purported to be “practically unsinkable,” Titanic tempted fate with impunity. Ditto the decision to declutter the Boat Deck by removing “unnecessary” lifeboats. Ditto the decision to steam at full speed into an ice field, despite numerous warnings of icebergs ahead. Ditto the bombastic boast, made by Belfast shipworkers, that “God himself could not sink this ship.” It is little wonder that so many passengers reported presentiments of catastrophe—55 cancelled bookings on account of them—not least Edith Russell who penned a letter prior to departure, which stated “I cannot get over my feeling of depression and premonition of trouble” (Ward, 2012). Many of these forewarnings, admittedly, were retrofitted afterwards and beefed up with all sorts of urban legends, everything from the curse of an ancient Egyptian mummy, which was being transported in the hold, to the claim that the ship's cat disembarked in Southampton, with kittens in tow, thanks to her feline intuition (Behe, 1988). But the incessant recycling of such stories helps reinforce Titanic's reputation as the Cleopatra of Calamity, a man-eating beauty whose infinite variety makes hungry where most she satisfies:

What was it about the Titanic anyway? Why did she still exert such a powerful spell over so many? I'd certainly caught the bug and I was supposed to be a hard-headed scientist … I shivered and started back toward my cabin. Five more days and then we'd be heading home—either as heroes or losers. Maybe the Titanic really was a cursed ship and our expedition, despite its high-tech excellence, would only be the latest to fall victim to her spell.

(Ballard, 1995, pp. 11–12, 13–14)

A melancholy feeling of emptiness came over me. How could I be experiencing this sense of loss, I wondered? After all, the Titanic was, in the final analysis, only a big wreck in deep water. Our mission had been a technological success. I should be feeling jubilation. Instead, I felt like a high-school senior saying goodbye to his steady girlfriend before heading off to college. I wanted to look to the future, but I couldn't help looking back.

(Ballard, 1995, pp. 239–240)

As Ballard's before-and-after reactions show, the Cleopatra comparison is far from inappropriate. Commentators on Titanic, be they historians or novelists or movie makers or mere enthusiasts, repeatedly refer to the allure of the vessel (Davenport-Hines, 2012). According to these love-struck swains, the ship is not only indescribably beautiful—a graceful, glamorous, gorgeous goddess—she's a tantalizing temptress who captivates all and sundry, and infatuates more than a few. Pellegrino (1988, p. 120) deems it the “Medusa Effect” and later concedes that “there is no divorcing the Titanic—Ever!” (p. 234). Lord (2005, p. 147) likewise laments that “she was a beautiful wonderful ship who cast a spell on all who built and sailed her”. Wade (1986, p. 322) waxes lyrical about her sensuous symbolism, her quasi-religious mystique, her immortal, ineffable presence which “was, is, and will be.”

Titanic, in fact, has been chauvinistically compared to every imaginable female stereotype: a siren, a flirt, a nymphet, an ingénue, a virgin bride, a femme fatale, a fallen woman, a hateful harridan, a vengeful virago who destroys those she beguiles. As Howells (2012) shows, she is usually endowed with assorted body parts—head, sides, bottom, bowels—screams in pain when pierced by the icy rapier, twists and turns in her terrible death throes and nowadays lies like a beautiful bleeding corpse beneath the black waters of the North Atlantic:

As we moved closer, it seemed as though the metal hull was slowly melting away. Rivers of rust covered the side of the ship, some of it running the full length of the exposed vertical hull plating and pouring out over the bottom sediment where it formed great ponds of as much as 30 to 40 feet across covered by a reddish-brown crust. The blood of the great ship lay in pools on the ocean floor. Then, as we rose in slow motion up the ghostly wall of the port bow, our running lights reflected off the broken glass of portholes in a way that made me think of cats’ eyes gleaming in the dark. In places, the rust about them formed eyelashes; sometimes tears, as though the Titanic were weeping over her fate.

(Ballard, 1995, p. 188)

The tenor of Titanic talk, Biel (2012) further reveals, ranges from anachronistically romantic (enthusiasts employ a weirdly antiquated language involving knights errant, fair maidens, vasty deeps, darksome nights, and the like) though unreconstructed locker-room ribaldry (disgruntled cameramen on Tilloch's 1996 expedition to raise a huge piece of the hull wore T-shirts with the inscription “George Can't Get It Up”) to what can only be described as salaciously rapacious sexism (most notably James Cameron's Titanic, where the wraparound narrative set on a treasure-hunting submersible is replete with macho man talk about penetrating the wreck, exposing the ship's secrets, overcoming Titanic's resistance, and generally forcing the wanton vessel into submission—“We're in baby! We're there! Oh, baby, baby, baby! Are you getting this boss?”).

And the metaphors don't stop there. For Titanic's designers and builders in Harland & Wolff shipyard, she was an innocent child cruelly abused by her officers and crew (Foster, 1997). According to Filson Young (1912), an early commentator on the disaster, Titanic was nothing less than an ungodly monstrosity, a female Frankenstein near enough (Howells, 2012). Other opinion formers have variously construed her as a supernatural creature, a sea serpent, a symphony, a ghost ship, a rusticle-covered coral reef that is as alive today as when she was born under a bad sign in Belfast's “industrial womb” (Pellegrino, 1988, p. 27):

There she was. They had been able to see her from the compartment window as the train ran slowly through the harbor area and out to the terminal. She lay there like a great black-and-white supernatural creature. Passengers were boarding, cargo was being loaded, and up on the decks people could be seen moving like termites on the great body of the ship, the morning sun making the metal and glass glint and tremble with light… Her name was right. The very sight of her vast shape – the cranes, the masts, the wires, and four enormous funnels – made David feel almost faint. The ship had a wonderful supernatural unity that made him think of music, of Bach, of sequences of notes extending and growing together into one vast structure.

(Hansen, 1996, p. 40)

Titanic may be Cleopatra incarnate for some, but as Larabee (1990) points out in a brilliant deconstruction of the great ship's gendering, her foundering cannot be divorced from wider social and cultural considerations. The sinking occurred at the height of the suffragist movement and precipitated agonized debate about the realities of sexual equality in life or death situations. Should women and children go first? Must men do the chivalrous thing by standing aside for the weaker sex? The “Votes for Women” issue was instantly transmuted into a “Boats for Women” question that gave rise to severe external critique and serious internal schism, thus temporarily castrating the female emancipation campaign (Foster, 1999).

Periodic crises in American gender relations, Larabee (1990) likewise observes, have coincided with waves of wider interest in the Titanic catastrophe. Whether it be the New Woman movement of the Gilded Age (when men were men and women went first) or first wave feminism of the 1960s (when the Unsinkable Molly Brown was lionized) or second wave feminism of the 1980s (when Bob Ballard put the lead back in America's technological pencil) or the third wave feminism that carried Cameron's female-friendly film to the top of the box office, Leo DiCaprio to superstardom and Celine Dion to lucrative residencies in Las Vegas (Bergfelder & Street, 2004), the sinking has always been bigger than the ship. It says something about society as a whole (Hirschman, 2000). While in 1912, manly heroism was exalted by many, whereas women were grotesquely misrepresented as weak, vain, and hysterical, very different gender relations obtained in 2001:

Survivors even reported a reference to the Titanic in the midst of the chaotic attempts to evacuate the south tower of the World Trade Center. On the seventy-eighth floor, soon to be directly hit by the second plane, a man supposedly blocked two women who were trying to squeeze past him into an elevator and said, “This isn't the Titanic ladies. It's not women and children first.”

(Biel, 2012, p. 233)

Belfast's Back

Titanic's symbolic function is nowhere better illustrated than in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the vessel that was “fine when she left here” has become a symbol of the city going forward. In seeking to shed its image as an urban war zone, Belfast is vigorously rebranding itself as Titanic Town (Neill, 2006). Granted, building a metropolitan place brand on the biggest new product failure of all time seems somewhat perverse (to put it politely), the civic equivalent of using the Edsel to sell Detroit, stressing Bhopal's links to Union Carbide or emphasizing Atlanta's proud association with the New Coke debacle. From the city's perspective, however, Titanic was a technological triumph, a marvel of marine engineering, living proof that Belfast gave birth to a ravishing mechanical enchantress. It is this (admittedly immodest) belief that led to the construction of the massively expensive visitors’ center, noted earlier. The centerpiece of a riverside regeneration project—pointedly termed Titanic Quarter—Titanic Belfast not only showcases the world's most famous ship, it is a metonymy for the metropolis itself, an embodiment of Belfast's Lazarus-like resurrection (Neill, 2010).

Opened to worldwide acclaim in April 2012, Belfast's Titanic brand museum is nothing if not striking (Costecalde & Doherty, 2012). An eye-catching evocation of the original liner, it is a star-shaped, steel-sheathed, ship-sized, iceberg-alike building that boasts the latest dark ride technology and visitor experience gizmos. Its nine galleries encapsulate the birth, death, and afterlife of the iconic vessel, though the emphasis is very much on the construction rather than the destruction of the craft. Banqueting suites, conference facilities, parking garages, gift shops, nautically themed cafes, and so forth round out the tourist-trapping offer. It is an expensive display case, a front parlor for the city, a place where visiting dignitaries—the Queen, Hillary Clinton, Lady Gaga, and the like—are taken to experience the best of Northern Irish hospitality and hear something of its history. Captains of industry and would-be investors are especially welcome, though its internal branding impact on local pride and civic consciousness is far from inconsequential.

Titanic Belfast may have transcended the city's traditional ethnic tensions but it has not trumped patriarchal personification. On the contrary, patriarchy has been brought into ever-sharper focus by Belfast's brobdignagian brand museum. At first glance, the most obvious thing about the building is its overt masculinity—sharp edges, broad shoulders, narrow waist, and exhibits that extol the hard-working men of Belfast's heavy industry heyday. At second glance, the covert chauvinism behind this manly façade is evident. Not only are women relatively underrepresented in the galleries, but the most stereotypically “female” part of the building, an exact replica of the grand staircase, is inaccessible to the general public. Situated in the banqueting suite, it is reserved for corporate functions and wedding parties. Although newlyweds are given an opportunity to enact their romantic “Jack and Rose” moment for photographic posterity, courting couples, unwedded lovebirds, just good friends, and ships that pass in the night are effectively debarred.

This initial prohibition, needless to say, proved unpopular with the city's taxpayers, who footed the bill for the £100 million building (Neill, 2012). At the same time, though, it created an opportunity for a feminized counterpart to Belfast's macho brand museum. Billed as Titanic's “little sister,” the SS Nomadic is one of two tender ships who ferried passengers to the vessel at Cherbourg harbor, which was not deep enough for the steamship. Nomadic was built by Harland and Wolff at the same time as Titanic, a quarter-size version of her big sister. She enjoyed a long and illustrious career during the golden age of transatlantic travel, only to end up as a floating restaurant in Paris. Set for the scrapyard, Nomadic was purchased by a charitable trust in 2006, transported back to Belfast on a barge, refurbished in its original White Star livery by Harland and Wolff, and is currently berthed in a dry dock immediately adjacent to the Titanic building. Not only does Nomadic possess the authenticity that the brand museum conspicuously lacks—it's a real ship, with real rivets and real original features—but she foregrounds the feminine side that Titanic Belfast roundly ignores. Star-crossed lovers are encouraged to strike the “Jack and Rose” pose in Nomadic's photogenic prow, romantic candle-lit dinners are available at the silver service restaurant, tableaux vivant tell the stories of famous female passengers from Molly Brown to Elizabeth Taylor, and the captain's cabin operates as a surrogate honeymoon suite for hire. All the love boat lacks is a Fifty Shades of White Star facility and, while the equality police may despair, Nomadic's brazen brand identity is little different from Gillette's male and female Fusion razors, Unilever's Axe and Dove deodorant divisions, Coca-Cola's Diet for distaff, Zero for heroes, formulations, Lego's little boy and big girl ranges of building blocks, John Paul Gaultier's personified perfume bottles for Le-Mâle et Ma-Dame, respectively, or the Hollywood movie market where “chick flicks” and “dick flicks” rule the roster (Lubin, 1999, p. 11) despite occasional transgender crossovers like James Cameron's Titanic.

SINKING FEELING

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. OCEANIC OBJECTIVES
  4. SYNOPTIC TITANIC
  5. A BRAND ON SHIP
  6. GO FIGURE
  7. SINKING FEELING
  8. FOREGONE CONCLUSION
  9. REFERENCES

The Titanic tragedy, as we have seen, looms large in cultural memory. It has been the subject of innumerable movies, musicals, murals, memorials, magazine articles, museum exhibitions, computer games, requiem masses, and more, as well as manifold works of literature, works of art, works of scholarship. One of the most powerful representations is a short poem by Thomas Hardy. Published within weeks of the sinking, “The Convergence of the Twain” personifies ship and iceberg both. It recounts their simultaneous birth and growth and eventual coming together in fatal embrace, what Foster (1999, p. 269) adroitly glosses as “an icy parody of sexual congress”:

And as the smart ship grewIn stature, grace and hue,In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.Till the Spinner of the YearsSaid “Now!” And each one hears,And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Icebergs, lest we forget, are widely considered to be living things too. As Gopnik (2012) observes, they are akin to enormous ominous beings who calve, give birth, break up, appear out of nowhere, “sneak up behind the Titanic” (p. 44), and act “like an awkward adolescent at a dance, popping the rivets and stays of the great ship” (p. 49). Indeed, the iceberg that sank the Titanic has not only been blessed with its own biography (Brown, 1986), but, in its capacity as a go-to image for cartoonists, newspaper columnists, and political commentators, is almost as famous as the deckchair arrangements on the stricken steamship (Howells, 2012).

It does not stop at icebergs. Almost everything associated with Titanic has been allegorized or personified or metaphorized in some shape or form. Whether it be the anthropomorphic tale of two undersea robots, Jake and Elwood, who get stuck in the wreck and have to be rescued (Cameron, 2003), or the agglomeration of rusticles on the prow of the remains, which has been dubbed “Georgyji's Gorgon” by ostensibly objective oceanographers (Pellegrino, 2012), or the manifold zoomorphic epithets that have been foisted upon the steamship—mastiff, whippet, whale, dolphin, octopus, sea monster, sleeping giant, King Kong, cultural bacterium, planet earth in miniature, living work of performance art (all Foster, 1997)—Titanic has been troped to within an inch of its life.

Titanic, in short, is a breeding ground for figures of speech, some of them unforgivably sexist. She has been boarded by able-bodied management consultants who extract strategic leadership lessons from the so-called ship of dreams (Cale & Tate, 2011). She figures prominently in Gerald Zaltman's (2003) book on the ZMET method, as a sibylline warning for those who adhere to old-fashioned marketing concepts. She has even been pressed into service as a metaphor for brand management (Brown, 2009). Most brands, after all, are launched with fanfare and finery and flummery—all in their striking, ship-shape liveries—only to founder on the iceberg of consumer resistance. Since 90% of new products sink without trace, Titanic is an apt trope for the Apple Lisas, Pepsi Clears, Microsoft Vistas, McDonald's Arch Deluxes, and Disney's Mars Needs Moms of this world.

For our present purposes, perhaps the most important Titanic/brand parallel pertains to polysemy. For decades, the watchwords of branding have been clarity, concision, cohesion, and consistency. In his formal statement of the USP, Rosser Reeves (1961, p. 39) expressly states that the reality principle of branding involves a single, cogent, clearly expressed claim or concept that is easy to remember. In their concise classic, Positioning, the Battle for Your Mind, Ries and Trout (1986, p. 8) advise brand managers to “jettison the ambiguities, simplify the message, then simplify it some more.” Kevin Lane Keller (1999) contends that lucidity is essential when building strong, favorable, and unique consumer associations, which are best compressed into a short, vivid, and crisp “brand mantra.” Aaker and Joachimsthaler (2009, pp. 40, 54), similarly, maintain that leading brands not only possess “a rich, clear, brand identity” but that “less ambiguity” is always better when it comes to the branding crunch.

Univalence is all very well but it is not the be all and end all of branding. The polysemous essence of outstanding brands is becoming increasingly apparent (Puntoni, Schroeder, & Ritson, 2010). Polysemy, indeed, cannot be avoided in a marketing milieu of vibrant brand communities and active consumer co-creation (Hackley, 2010). Brand ambiguity, as Titanic exemplifies, is a strength rather than a weakness. The more ambivalent the brand, the more it allows consumers to take their own meanings from and project their own feelings onto the offer. Titanic, like every iconic brand, has something for everyone (Kemp, 2012). Its selling proposition is not so much unique as unfathomable. It is an ink blot—RMS Rorschach, so to speak—that affords consumers a multitude of interpretive options. Titanic's plethora of concupiscent personifications, Titanic's Cleopatra-like infinite variety, Titanic's Madonna-esque ability to chop and change and captivate (Brown, 2003), is the secret of the unsinkable brand's undying allure.

FOREGONE CONCLUSION

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. OCEANIC OBJECTIVES
  4. SYNOPTIC TITANIC
  5. A BRAND ON SHIP
  6. GO FIGURE
  7. SINKING FEELING
  8. FOREGONE CONCLUSION
  9. REFERENCES

In his ruminations on the cultural history of wintertime, Adam Gopnik (2012) notes that although heavy snowfall offers a blank canvas for humankind's unquenchable creativity and unbounded imagination, our overwhelming preference is to build a snowman, complete with coal for eyes, carrot for nose, and woolly scarf to keep out the cold. Personification, clearly, is very deeply engrained in the human psyche (Guthrie, 1995). The reasons for our anthropomorphic inclinations are endlessly debated, and humankind's personifying propensity has fallen in and out of critical favor (Paxson, 1994). However, the impulse is irresistible, all but instinctual and almost impossible to eradicate. From the cave paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic to pasting brand profiles on the walls of Facebook, we are inveterate personifiers. This paper has examined the passenger list of personifications on Brand Titanic, some of which are nautical, many of which are patriarchal, and all of which offer insights into the nature and scope of branding.

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  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. OCEANIC OBJECTIVES
  4. SYNOPTIC TITANIC
  5. A BRAND ON SHIP
  6. GO FIGURE
  7. SINKING FEELING
  8. FOREGONE CONCLUSION
  9. REFERENCES
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