Using creative dissonance to build surprising brands

When you’re building a brand, what makes it truly spectacular?

A great brand can be the culmination of a single minded vision. But in my experience, the best, most surprising brands come from bringing together two conflicting forces — matter and antimatter, as it were — and using their dissonant energy to create a greater entity.

I’m living this creative dissonance with one of my clients, a developer of new villages that combine cutting edge thinking and the sentimentality of Norman Rockwell settings. It’s something I’ve seen again and again in my sustainability brand projects. I know this dissonance leads to incredible creativity and freshness.

Here’s how to make it work for you.

Feel the cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is, by definition, the discomfort that comes from holding two contradictory thoughts, beliefs or attitudes at the same time. Belief in an almighty god, and belief in being in charge of your own destiny, for example.

Yes, cognitive dissonance has fuelled the careers of philosophers since time immemorial. As a consequence, it often leads to overthinking, and trying to distort one thought to accommodate the other. What usually ensues is a muddled mess.

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Embrace cognitive dissonance as a force that fires up creativity, not as two conflicting ideas that need to be wrestled into harmony.

Feel the cognitive dissonance wash over you. Embrace it as a feeling that fires creativity, not as two conflicting ideas that need to be harmoniously brought together.

Contrast that with the work of director David Lynch in Blue Velvet. Blue Velvet is set against a utopian backdrop—lawns that are greener than green, milkmen smile as they deliver their bottles. But the undercurrent is twisted and evil,  personified by a particularly demented Dennis Hopper.

One of the things that makes this movie great is that Lynch simply puts this twisted dissonance out there for our entertainment. What ensues is an unforgettable cinematic experience.

My conclusion? Feeling the tension of two conflicting ideas or beliefs is a good thing. It’s a tension that makes us uncomfortable, and forces us to see reality in a new way. Revel in that feeling, instead of trying to wrestle the ideas into harmony.

Speaking of being uncomfortable, here’s how you can master those awkward LinkedIn cocktail intros.

Steampunk your brand thinking

What is steampunk? It’s modern technology — iPads, computers, robotics, air travel — powered by steam and set in the 1800’s. I found that wonderful quote on a site aptly named the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences.

Steampunk is all about bringing together our infatuation with shiny, new, cutting edge thinking with the romance of Victorian or Wild West tech. What comes out is fascinating art, wondrous contraptions, and unbridled creativity.

Steampunk is a wonderful example of what happens when you embrace dissonance and use it to fuel creative thinking

Steampunk is a wonderful example of what happens when you embrace dissonance and use it to fuel creative thinking.

Creative dissonance creates lots of ideas, but how do you know they’re good? This story tells you how to evaluate creativity.

The underlying principle of steampunk is to go against conventions of how something should look and work. That’s where the ‘punk’ part comes in – challenging us to throw off the shackles of status quo thinking and adopt a ‘what if…’ attitude.

How could steampunk thinking change how your product is built, or how it’s presented to the public as a brand? Can you embrace both the reality of your product and how it might be transformed by overlaying dissonant influences? What would your brand be if you gave it to a futurist from the 1800s like Jules Verne?

Celebrate your consumer’s idiosyncrasies

In the brand project I mentioned at the start of this story, I talked about how we’re bringing together cutting edge sustainability and ‘new village’ thinking with the sentimental feel of old towns.

Truth is, our target audience have absolutely no compunction for bringing together these dissonant elements in their minds. In fact, they’d welcome seeing the two together.

Your audience will probably embrace your brand’s creative dissonance without batting an eye. Accordingly, they’ll be fascinated by the cross pollination.

Truth is, your audience probably won’t bat an eye if you bring together two brand elements that are dissonant – they’ll welcome the fresh thinking.

All too often, we believe we need to be pure in our approach to building a brand. If something is new, we need to dress it in the trappings of the new. That’s boring, constricted thinking.

Far more creative (and memorable) is to create the equivalent of an old hot rod with an electric motor. Do they belong together? No. Do they work together? Brilliantly. Would our audience accept them together? Again, they’ll probably be fascinated by the cross pollination.

So let the dissonance begin. Your brand will be better for it.

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This article was originally published on December 18, 2017, and has been updated.

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