New Orleans is a place of contradictions and paradox. Spend a day there and you’ll see the meld and clash of the old and new. You’ll watch religion and debauchery coexist and even fuel one another (hello, Mardi Gras!). Luxury and poverty both have a marked presence in the city, alongside de- and re-construction. All these things come together to create a unique place, community, and perspective, equal parts difficult and beautiful.
It’s an example of what it means to accept the raw material of life and humanity, tragedy and celebration, contradictions and all, and allow something new and creative to emerge. And that’s why, as strategists, artists, and storytellers, we chose to meet there as a team and gain some perspective in the birthplace of so many American arts and cultures.
These days, we seemingly live in a black and white world. There’s a lot of “or” rather than “and.” Views are categorized as “right” or “wrong.” And we often make ourselves known — and even know ourselves — based on which side of dividing lines we fall. It’s clean and tidy. It skirts the uncomfortable feeling of dissonance. But is it actually helping us?
As humans, when faced with a paradox, we tend to choose one extreme and discard the other. Our brains have a hard time with contradictory ideas. It’s not necessarily a failing — it’s just literally how we’re wired. Categorizing ideas (and pretty much anything we can get our minds or hands on) is a shortcut our brains have developed to help us process complex information quickly.
The problem is, a lot of times, confirmation bias ensures that even if we have all the facts we still come to a predetermined conclusion. And this is no way for a strategist to be thinking. Especially when our clients are relying on us to help them solve big problems and make decisions that have large impacts on their business.
So we came to New Orleans to explore the concept of “liminality.” When it comes to understanding the fullness of the world — and, therefore, effective branding — we have to learn to exist in the in-between. The word “liminality” refers to a threshold of sorts, the space that one inhabits during a transition or the uncategorized space between two ideas. Perhaps it is a psychological gray place. And, if so, New Orleans embodies the concept beautifully.
Lynda Decker, President and Creative Director of Decker Design, Inc. says, “Successful brands break rules that have been the foundation of marketing dogma. Instead, they build on conceptual themes that are bigger and broader than a set of graphic elements; they are supported by ideas that explore the common ground between the brand and our emotions.”
It’s our job as brand strategists to make that connection between a brand’s mission and human emotion. We need to constantly widen our scope and stretch our perspectives. When we bring unique brands to life for our clients, it’s our responsibility not to diminish or discard the paradoxes and contradictions we find during discovery. Instead, we must challenge ourselves to dive into them and exist in that place of discomfort until a deeper truth emerges. As New Orleans taught us, to hold together in the face of raging contradictions is to create a space for creativity, empathy, invention, and world-changing ideas. And the French-American beignet is only one mouthwatering example.
If this sounds weird and woo-woo to you, just know that liminality is already happening with successful brands, AND bridging gaps to new consumers. Some reassurance as you exist in creative discomfort:
Some of the most successful brands are already embracing paradox.
Consider oft-cited Patagonia. “Patagonia operates across multiple, paradoxical dimensions. It is at once a rugged outdoor brand but also sincere in its environmental stance and competent in its reputation for high-performance technologies.” It embodies sustainability and reuse, even as its gear acts as a sophisticated status symbol, and yet it remains authentic in its stance and practices.
Multicultural individuals already exist in this headspace.
“Bicultural individuals constantly toggle back and forth from one culture to another, whether it’s switching languages or responding to different cultural stimuli.” Bicultural people not only represent an enormous opportunity for brands, they also understand cognitive flexibility better than anyone, and paradox brands appeal to them.
It’s how we create real conversation and trust.
Creating content that reinforces our audience’s currently held beliefs is an easy way to create conversation. But it’s also exclusionary. And, come to think of it, it’s not real conversation — it’s an echo chamber. In a world where so many companies see us as nothing more than “consumers” or, even worse, the product itself, we should be wary of anyone feeding our own biases back to us.
Our team welcomes healthy challenges to accepted beliefs and approaches (although we are still very divided on pineapple as a pizza topping…). This approach is what helped our client, a workout app for habitual gym users, pivot to serve those who were new to exercise — and grow their user base 18x. It’s what helped our sustainable farming client become a creative and disruptive salad brand during the pandemic. It’s what helped an AI healthcare technology client become one of the most humanistic brands in the category.
During this in-between time (is COVID over?), in which we are struggling with injustice and violence and inequality, and responsively reinventing ourselves and our values in the most beautiful of ways — we should be making a point to break old rules and create new ideas, in service of a better world. Like New Orleans keeps doing decade after decade, we can create something new, and then step into the world of what is next.