Metalogue 6: Why a swan?

Swan Lake 3

In this metalogue, Bateson and his daughter talk about the meanings evoked by dance.

This teaches us something about what it takes to build a strong brand.

But unfortunately, Bateson tells us, if we want to know explicitly how to apply this learning and put it into practice… “It’s a secret.” (Well, almost.)

You can read the full original metalogue here.

What Bateson Tells Us:

In this metalogue, Bateson and his daughter talk about the ballets Swan Lake and Petrushka. The first is about a human princess who was turned into a swan by an wicked sorcerer’s curse. The second is about a traditional Russian puppet (or ‘petrushka’) who comes to life and develops emotions, who becomes human.

Father and daughter wonder why the composers chose to write about a swan and a puppet. They reflect on the extent to which, rather than simply watching ‘a human dancer wearing a costume’ on the stage, they find themselves caught up in actually watching ‘a puppet’ or ‘a swan’ dancing, telling a story.

They realise that when the puppet or the swan displays strong human characteristics, each becomes somehow more ‘human’ than the other human characters on the stage.

They decide that what they are watching is something that is ‘sort of’ human, and a ‘sort of’ swan or puppet. But what does ‘sort of’ mean?

They realise that ‘sort of’ can have two meanings: a ‘subset of’, and ‘having similar characteristics to’. On the one hand, a swan is a sort of bird. (And a dancing swan is a sort of swan — a ‘pretend’ swan.) And at the same time the behaviour of this particular dancing swan is sort of birdlike and sort of human.

A petrushka is a sort of human: one made out of sawdust and straw. And more importantly, when we say the puppet Petrushka is sort of human we mean that there is a relationship, a metaphorical relationship, between some of the ideas we have about puppets and some of the ideas we have about what it is to be human.

Father and daughter then talk about the Christian practice of taking bread and wine. For some people these are ‘sort of’ the body and blood of Christ. For other people they are literally the body and blood: they are a sacrament, a sacred rite “by which divine life is dispensed to us.”

Bateson thinks the ballet works in the same way. For some people the costume and the movements of the dancer are metaphor for a swan or a puppet. But for others they are a literally a sacrament: a sacred rite “by which divine life is dispensed to us.”

How would we tell the difference between a dancer who was dancing a metaphor and one who was dancing a sacrament? [And is this what makes a dancer great?]

Bateson asks whether the difference lies with the dancer or with the audience. Or, actually, is it a combination of the two? Is it that the audience and the dancer come together to create a sacrament on a particular night: those hugely memorable performances that are talked about for years afterwards?

He decides that neither the dancer nor the audience has control over whether a particular performance is a sacrament. So the choice and control must lie with both or neither of them.

And beyond that, he says, it is a sort of a secret where the difference comes from. It is something that we cannot tell. “Great art and religion and all the rest of it is about this secret,” he says. “But knowing the secret in an ordinary conscious way would not give the knower control [over that secret].”

[The same applies to branding, as we shall see in a moment.]

So the secret must be something we can know, and perhaps control, unconsciously.

“The swan figure,” Bateson concludes, “is not a real swan but a pretend swan. It is also a pretend-not human being. And it is also ‘really’ a young lady wearing a white dress. (And a real swan would resemble a young lady in certain ways.)”

He continues: “It is not one of these statements but their combination that constitutes a sacrament. The ‘pretend’ and the ‘pretend-not’ and the ‘really’ somehow get fused together into a single meaning.”

Logicians and scientists like to keep them separate. But they do not write great ballets, or sacraments.

Implications for Business:

This metalogue is ‘sort of’ about branding. It seems to be about something completely else but at the same time it is absolutely about what happens deep within the branding process. A strong brand develops in its audiences or stakeholders an unconscious combination of what it pretends it is, what it pretends it is not, and what it ‘is really’. These three get fused together into a single meaning.

The way we can see this starts from realising how great dancers and great actors can touch us and evoke in us an emotional or even spiritual connection with what it is to be human.

Great brands do the same. They combine a number of elements and mix them up together: emotional connection, functionality, reliability, ease of use, innovation, community, and delight. They “fuse together the ‘pretend’, the ‘pretend-not’ and the ‘really’ into a single meaning.”

As examples, the top five global brands in 2015 were Apple, Google, Coca-Cola, Microsoft and IBM. Did these companies manage to fuse together the ‘pretend’, the ‘pretend-not’ and the ‘is really’ into a single meaning?

  • Apple
    ‘Pretends’ that it is all about incredible human-centred design.
    ‘Pretends it is not’ a hard-nosed business, driving costs down and prices up.
    ‘Is really’ an innovative technology company, following a coherent and driven strategy, with strengths in innovation and design.
  • Google
    ‘Pretends’ it is a technology company operating for the greater good, seeking to help humans live without disease and cheat death.
    ‘Pretends it is not’ evil (a word they chose) or not just another organisation interested in maximising financial performance.
    ‘Is really’ a search company that has diversified into a varied and ambitious range of brands and products/services.
  • Coca-Cola
    ‘Pretends’ it is a great tasting drink that will bring you friends.
    ‘Pretends it is not’ a highly effective marketing machine selling flavoured sugar water.
    ‘Is really’ a flavoured carbonated water drink, with effective marketing, that is currently working to move into lower-calorie, lower-sugar, and healthier segments, that has also shown leadership in water conservation.
  • Microsoft
    ‘Pretends’ that its software is exciting and sexy.
    ‘Pretends it is not’ a company that is still living off a dominant market position established over 30 years ago.
    ‘Is really’ a reasonably good technology company with a historically dominant market position that is working to update and bring coherence to its business model.
  • IBM
    ‘Pretends’ it is an innovative, reliable behemoth.
    ‘Pretends it does not’ have any weaknesses.
    ‘Is really’ a large, innovative, multifaceted technology company, with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others.

Take a moment to test this for your favourite (or not-favourite) brands. What do you pretend they are? What do you pretend they are not? What are they really?

A great performance is created by the dancer or actor and the audience together. A strong brand is created by the customers and the company together.

The brand is just as much about what the company and audience pretend together that the brand is not as it is about what they pretend together it is. And behind any strong brand there ‘is really’ an ordinary company that has to get the same things done as every other company, but has managed to learn to do them in a way that creates a stronger ‘collective illusion’ in the minds and emotions of customers and employees; a willingness and ability in employees to do the right things in the right way; a willingness and desire in customers to pay for that.

Unfortunately, Bateson tells us, if we want to know clearly how to create this, then it is a secret (or a sort of a secret). And it is unconscious.

But now we know that good branding is a kind of a ‘sacrament’. It comes out of the interaction between the dancer and the audience. As Steve Jobs knew this is about the relationship between the company and its customers, between the company and its employees. If we want to create this ‘sacrament’ for our businesses, we need to focus on the relationship between the business and its customers, people, suppliers, lenders, and investors. Then the business can be become a kind of sacrament, “by which divine life is dispensed to us.”

When two people fall in love it involves a similar sort of mutual merging of “pretend is” and “pretend is not” and “is really”. That would certainly explain why we love our brands.

The focus on relationship will be developed in Bateson’s later writings.

And Bateson has already told us how to update the meaning of our business or relationship over time.

Photo By thisisbossi via

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