Anybody concerned with the creation of brand stories – be they personal, corporate or organisational – would be well-advised to go and see Jackie, the Pablo Larraín directed biopic of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.
As it happens, the film isn’t really a biopic at all.
If you want to discover more of a sense of the character of this most enigmatic of 20th century icons, far better to listen to the Schlesinger tapes, where her wit and wisdom shine out beyond the halo of the Camelot myth (I’d also recommend watching the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, where you’ll find a fine sense of the world and time she came from, and that that voice is remarkably similar to her cousin Little Edie’s).
Jackie is, on one level, a portrait of a particular woman’s response to a catastrophic event – a study in the initial aftermath of post-traumatic stress and the dizzying swirl that engulfs you in the first hours and days of sudden death, dealing, simultaneously, with the descent of grief, the business of grieving, and computing a new, unimaginable reality.
On another level, possibly a discordant one, Jackie is a portrait of a particular woman’s ability at superlative brand management in the midst of chaos, violence and dissent.
Plenty of us find ourselves managing brands in the midst of, if not violence, certainly chaos and dissent, so what are the lessons Jackie can teach us?
Know your purpose
All leaders seek to create a legacy. All leaders seek to change things for the better. Any leader who doesn’t shouldn’t expect any one to follow them.
Kennedy wanted to change a lot of things. He came to power with great hope, stumbled, learned, and was ready to win a second term (he even had a few ideas as to what he might like to do after that term).
He was denied the opportunity.
Jackie, knowing his purpose, sharing it, saw her purpose in the world-splitting wake of his death – for him and her nation – was to honour his. She had to fight for the opportunity. She was unyielding, cementing the idea that the legacy of JFK had to be his ideas (as the actions were half-finished and could so easily be undone; this was a woman who understood naked, brutal power – she’d met it often enough).
What are we trying to do here?
What are we trying to say?
Why are we trying to do it?
What do we want to change?
How do we want to be remembered?
If you struggle to answer these questions, you need to uncover, or rediscover, your brand purpose.
How might you do that?
Know your history
Both Jack and Jacqueline were history buffs. When his drive to carve out his place in history was arrested after 1037 days, her drive became to secure his place for eternity (quite literally, in fact, with the eternal flame at Arlington).
His achievements may not stack up against the monumental Lincoln, but Lincoln’s shared death could contextualise Kennedy’s assassination, his funeral inform the precedents for a slain president; both serving to further elevate Kennedy’s standing through the power of association.
Jackie knew this wasn’t just a tragedy for her, her children and the Kennedy clan. It was an American Tragedy. Tragedy requires grandeur. Grandeur demands majesty. Majesty inclines dignity.
By knowing her history, she knew where to look for inspiration; what that grandeur and dignity should look like.
From launch, a brand has a heritage. The genesis of a company, a product, a Twitter profile, came from somewhere, some place of intent. Start-ups can struggle to keep this alive, where that intent, that vision, can be precarious in infancy; established brands can easily lose sight of it or forget it even exists.
When lost, going back to the beginning can be a good place to start to find your way again.
Know your archetypes
Whether inventing, invigorating, galvanising or celebrating a brand, if you want to be legendary, you better know your myths.
Myths echo and morph across all cultures. They create shortcuts to meaning, understanding. They are the stories coded into our DNA. The stories we tell over and over in all our stories, consciously or not.
And myths, as Jackie knew, are borne of other myths.
John. F. Kennedy was a little boy inspired by heroic tales. A man who wanted to generate, and deliver, heroic ideas. For Jackie, clearly, he was her Knight in Shining Armour (she would need another later and, though he didn’t exactly look the part, along came Onassis).
JFK did look the part, perfectly cast for the shining Knight; perfectly cast for the slain hero, with what-might-have-been intwined so perfectly into the myth that he’s endured as a spectre to every successor he’s had.
One hundred years after his birth, JFK is the archetypal president.
And the final, most important, lesson from Jackie?
Keep it simple.
Metonymic status should always be the brand goal (Google it). The whole story in one word. The essence. The myth. The heritage. The values.
For the Kennedy presidency, the golden hope; the tragic end.
In looking down to Camelot, Jacqueline Kennedy connected the past to the present, the present to an unforgettable future, deftly weaving the Kennedy myth into the legend of King Arthur (say Camelot today and how many people think Kennedy before King Arthur).
She also, in launching this ‘brand’ to the world, tapped into the zeitgeist with a popular, contemporary expression of the myth via the musical Camelot (creating a sonic ident in the process) – “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.“
As Jackie shows, this wasn’t in vain. The myth of Camelot is as powerful today as it was half a century ago. It still shines.
And, above all, an act of love.