Rules of Effective Brand Engagement from Professor J.R.R. Tolkien

“I can’t get enough of your cold calls (commercials, spam, etc)” – said no client ever.

“I can’t get enough of this brand” – said or thought every one of us at least once. We even learn to enjoy the commercials, emails and calls from the the brands that we’re really engaged with.

Doesn’t it make sense to create brand engagement instead of just bombarding vaguely and usually incorrectly  defined target audience with things that you want them to see and hear and that they don’t care about?

However much sense it makes, for many “brand engagement” remains rather a buzz-word that has no correlation to immediate or strategic action plans. The reason for that is… Uhm, I was going to come up with a confusing combination of more buzz-words, but I’ll just say: we just don’t know how to do it.

We just don’t know how to create a really effective engagement with a brand. So we shrug it off, and pay the price for a poor engagement with audience. 

The problem is, the time has come when brands can no longer afford not being engaging. The time when a brand has to learn the art of engagement. Not from a boring business-trainer with flip-chart doodles. But from somebody who actually created a brand that millions of people across generations can’t get enough of.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome: creator of the history’s  most engaging brand “Middle-Earth” (that can be an exaggeration, but let’s not ruin the grandeur) Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

Don’t take this literally, Professor left this world many years ago, but we still have a lot to learn from his novels.

What? Who said “Middle-Earth” is not a brand?

Let’s define “brand”. Ok, Google! Go!

Oooops… Lost in definitions? So am I.

I’ve been digging through definitions and perceptions of a term “brand” for quite a while. The conclusion I arrived to is this: it really doesn’t matter what a definition of a term “brand” is. What matters is how your audience experiences you as a brand. That is if you want to actually create an engaging brand and not just talk about it.  

It’s all about culture

Tolkien’s world inspired movie industry, publishing industry, music industry, merchandise, fan art, behaviors… Look, people would spend days in woods to enact Tolkien’s stories; people sew their own clothes to look like elves, or human warriors, or orcs, what have you; people who don’t remember a single grammar rule from school would learn a foreign non-existing and practically useless elven language; and even mutilate themselves (highly not recommended, although I met a couple of “elves” that had their ears sharpened surgically). Obviously people experience something so extraordinary, they are willing to commit to it.  

Professor Tolkien didn’t just create an interesting story, which many authors in his genre do. He created a culture that people are really motivated to join. Some call it “Tolkienist movement”, but it’s not a movement. It’s a culture.  And it’s important: it actually constitutes the first rule of brand engagement.

The first rule of brand engagement: A movement is motivated by a goal, and it becomes obsolete one the goal is achieved (or irreparably failed, let’s be realistic this is more likely to happen with a movement). 

A culture is not finite, it has limitless potential for growth and evolution. Watch out: as a brand you want to create a culture, not a movement.

Tolkien is a fine example of a superb storyteller. Not because he literally wrote novels, but because his novels sparked storytelling in masses of people. Tolkien is an example of a storyteller that every brand should aspire to be. Don’t take it literally – you don’t need to write novels about mythological creatures, God forbid. Storytelling for a brand is a subtle art of immersing your audience in the world and identities that they’re lacking in their lives when your brand is not there. This immersion should feel so good, they can’t get enough of it.

Professor Tolkien certainly excelled in doing so. And I’m going to extract some essential aspects of building a brand, that we can find in his novels.

You may think, that building a brand for a magical world and for a real product are not the same. You’re right, in case of your brand the story probably should be more subtle and the language should be appropriate. Please don’t speak elven to your clients.

You’re wrong, because the receiving brain is the same, and the ways that a human brain perceives a fantasy world or the world of whatever you have to offer are fundamentally identical. These seemingly different worlds are perceived through imagination, an outstanding function of human neurophysiology, that entertainment, advertisement and marketing are supposed to cater to.  

So let’s see what exactly happens there.

Why Hobbit?

I always gravitated towards elven identity when I was one of those Tolkienist kids. Many of my friends played as people of some royal inheritance (of course). A few preferred roles of dwarves (and consumed almost all of the alcohol we managed to bring to the game). Some enjoyed being orcs, they even had their motto: “There’s only two types of creatures in the Middle-Earth – orcs and orc’s food”. But I’ve never met anyone who would genuinely want to identify as a hobbit in a game. I don’t think we ever had hobbits in our games, although hobbits were the main characters of the Middle-Earth adventures.

Nobody wanted to be hobbits in our games because we all already were hobbits in our lives. 

What’s new?

It only makes sense that when we get to choose a fictional identity we’d go for something that we are missing in our everyday lives, not something we already reiterate day in day out.

But interestingly, “Silmarillion” is much less popular. The “elven history book” offers a lot of exciting characters, wonderful fabric of lives and adventures… and nobody cares. Elves are beautiful and perfect, so beautiful and perfect, they are not relatable enough to commit to the thick book about them.

Like it or not, we are – most of us – all hobbits. We all have our cosy homes on “the Hill”, with abundance of food and beverages in pantries. We are secure, and we can’t stand real adventures. Ok, you may think you’re adventurous and up to challenges… But c’mon, when was the last time somebody three times your size chased you through enchanted forests, when was the last time you crossed mountain ridge on foot with no food at all, when was the last time you held a real sword in your hands because you had to protect your life with it?

Of course we all face our little challenges, but hey, by the contrast we are essentially hobbits.

That’s why the hero journey we are following in Professor’s novels are hobbit’s journeys. It’s not the glamour of elves, courage of royal men, or wickedness of orcs that make a fantastic world so relatable and therefore so enchanting. It is the relatability of hobbits.

If you, as a brand, create a story around a celebrity, or an outstanding personality, or an unnaturally perfect persona, you can attract some attention, for sure. Human brain loves stimuli, and sharing the same products with somebody godlike is quite stimulating. But the same brain keeps looking for stimulations, and as soon as another brand presents another celebrity, your brand will be forgotten. Brand engagement is not about short-term stimulation, it’s about long term… what? Right! Culture.

To create such a culture a brand must make sure that the main hero of the stories in the world that’s being created is the client. In literature it’s accomplished by introducing a highly relatable protagonist. In branding it’s way more subtle, but not less essential. Your content, your ads, your calls, your website, you products must constitute a journey where the hero with new magical possibilities is your client.

The second rule of brand engagement: Your audience is on a hero’s journey in your brand’s world, and protagonists you introduce must be highly relatable. 

The darkness is present.. it’s actually omnipresent.

There’s a lot of darkness in Tolkien’s world. Certainly there’s the “main villain” – Sauron, but it’s not him who causes most of the trouble.

It’s not even “his” creatures – orcs, nazguls, etc.

Other evil characters such as trolls, goblins or Smaug the dragon are no joke, but…

But the biggest enemy that the heroes - and readers - encounter is the evil within each and every character. The evil we have within ourselves. We can see the evil side of elves, of humans, of wizards, of dwarves, of hobbits…

Nobody is a perfect goodness, the whole world is not the perfect goodness that gets interrupted by somebody ultimately evil every so often. It’s just not what our billion-year-old minds know as “the real world”

The good and the evil are the world, they are like two magnetic poles. Any fictional world that we may experience more vividly than a real one exists within the “magnetic field” of omnipresent tension between good and evil.

We are wired to engage with what feels like a “real world”. But we’re also wired to distinguish a “real world” from a plain picture. We are wired to engage with what’s real and ignore what’s not real.

Can you tell a real mug from a picture of a mug? I’m sure you won’t try to put coffee in a picture no matter how well it’s drawn. Can a baby tell a real toy from a picture of a toy? For sure, nobody needs special training for that. In the same way we can tell a multidimensional world that we can engage with from a flat image of one.

The balance of the good and the evil makes a fictional world feel so real that we can’t get enough of it. We want to have reminders of that world in our everyday lives, we want to stay connected with such a world.

When the evil is gone there’s nothing that keeps us in touch with a fictional world. That’s why we won’t see the 8th part of Harry Potter. Because nobody cares about “Harry Potter and the Normal Family Life”.

Brands fail to engage because they are too afraid to show the evil side, the controversy, the confrontation, the tension. The shadow, if you want Jungian talk. 

No matter how much we want to experience “only the good” we know that nothing real exists without a shadow. Actually, quite literally: in a room where lighting that doesn’t throw shadows (big gyms and airports are classic examples) we feel slightly disturbed. Something is off without a shadow.

Remember how Apple was creating their “world”? Remember those ads featuring “the Mac Guy” and “the PC Guy”? Apple made it really clear who the antagonist was, and how strong the confrontation was. Fun, and friendly, but not without a tension.

It’s kind of boring to identify yourself as an “Apple guy” now that everybody is an “Apple guy”. The “enemy” is defeated, the “world” is gone. Even with the market value, the inertia and the reputation like Apple’s this is not a sustainable situation.

Most brands present what I call “flat utopia”: a perfect life, with perfect solutions, where some minor issues disappear immediately once you use the brand’s products. Personal brands are even worse: a fake perfect picture of a fake perfect life – what can be less engaging than that? No wonder the competition is going through the roof and frustration is much higher than ROI.

Another example. You’ve probably many social ads have you seen that are designed to donate blood, become an organ donor, participate in a cause, etc. Most if not all of them show an ultimately good person who only ultimately good things.

How convincing were those ads? How much did they inspire you for action? How memorable they were?

Now watch this one (if you haven’t seen it yet):

What do you feel? It’s comical, but you definitely see some evil. It makes the story so engaging and really hard to forget.

The third rule of brand engagement: introduce the evil force, nurture the shadow, allow the tension, create your brand’s world between the poles of light and darkness, avoid the flat utopia.

Back to J.R.R. Tolkien, and his fandom.

I already mentioned that different fans of the Middle-Earth world want to see themselves as different races, different characters and archetypes. And Professor indulged his readers with the galore of well-developed characters.

One of the factors that made his world so engaging is his masterful creation of variety of characters with unique charm to every kind of them. 

He used subtle nuances to reflect different personas. He didn’t only describe the background and appearances – he elaborated on their sophisticated psychology, and thus made them real.

There’s a story line for many characters, nobody is plain good or plain bad: every character is a complex combination of human traits.

By the way, my biggest criticism of J.K. Rowling’s literary world is that her characters are underdeveloped: they are more like circumstances in Harry Potter’s life than separate individuals with their own separate stories. That’s why the Harry Potter movies are so much more engaging than the Harry Potter books: the actors give the characters the dimensions that the books failed to give.  

A good story is not yet a world. A good story can entertain, but it won’t create long lasting engagement. A brand needs to create a world, and a world needs population. Tolkien went further: he didn’t only create the population, he created their language, legacy, history and art. He made it easy for his reader’s brains to perceive his fictional world as if it was a real one. And to want to have something to do with it.

This is what your brand should aspire to, if you want engaged, loyal, committed audience. “Populate” your world, create multidimensional “characters” that your audience can perceive as real individuals and interact with them. 

Again, I don’t mean literally. Literally would be way too easy. And for many industries, quite weird.

A “character” in a brand’s case is usually not a fictional character: it’s set of subtle clues that create the same experience as a well developed character would create.

Your “characters” can be articles, posts, videos, products.

They can be different in nature and in relation to the hero. (Who is your Hero? Right, the client! Not you. Let me repeat it. NOT YOU. Let that sink in)

Some can be “friends”, some can be “mentors”, some can be “tricksters”, some can be “tools”, even “magical tools”.

Populating your world, don’t forget about artifacts. Tolkien didn’t introduce artifacts for no reason: they help to create deeper meaning and history of the world. Well, the whole story rotates around “The Ring” right? And there are foliants, swords, armor, jewelry, etc., that give the characters – and the hero – more power, help him,  or impede his journey, but surely create the depth of the experience.

Brands usually stick to one and the same format, style and type of content and products. It doesn’t help engagement, because human brains always look for variety of experiences, and what we don’t get from your brand – we will get it somewhere else.

Multimedia approach helps to “develop your characters” even better, as in the “Harry Potter” example.

But it is important to remember that all those characters and artifacts exist in one world, they should be consistent with the environment of this world, and therefore complement each other and together create an engaging experience.

Yes, you heard me right: your content, your guest appearances, your visuals, your products are all “characters” and “artifacts” in the world that your audience is engaged with.  

Well there, I did it.

I justified the countless hours spent “in the Middle-Earth” by taking some practical lessons out of it.

Just like your client would want practical justification for engaging with your brand, but it wouldn’t be the primary reason why they want to engage with your brand. Give them something they can’t get enough of – a new experience, and practical justifications will be easy to come up with.

Speaking of experience: I hope I boggled your mind a little bit with all the metaphors and parallels between two seemingly separate subjects – fantasy fiction and commercial branding.

Remember that metaphors are key to experience. Getting exposed to metaphors and making your own metaphors is a great way to create gorgeous experiences - a rare gem in our times of short attention spans, superficial relationships and “white noise” of shallow “content”. Let’s make magic instead.    

Additional bibliography:

Peterson, Jordan B. Maps of Meaning: the Architecture of Belief. Routledge, 1999.

Solis, B. (2011). Engage!. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Campbell, J. (n.d.). The hero with a thousand faces.

OMara, S. (n.d.). A Brain for Business.

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