Friday, January 25, 2008

Lamenting the Loss of the Heath Ledger Brand

The news and discussion of Heath Leger’s untimely death have been spreading across the internet like wildfire. Developments of the story in media properties and social networking sites have been literally unavoidable in the past 24 hours.

As has now become customary, a makeshift memorial tribute of flowers and messages has been accumulating outside his NYC apartment, left by people struggling to cope with this lost and needing an understandable outlet to express their grief.

For those not able to make the pilgrimage in person, a digital forum fulfills the same purpose. The LA Times printed a collection of tributes that Ledger fans left on-line with the newspaper.

One would expect to find expressions of regret, gratitude and sympathy in the excerpts selected for publication. In addition there were four key themes which threaded throughout the sentiments:

The allusion to celebrity as role model: “You taught us so much”

The importance of immortality: “You will live in your films for ever”

Religious conversion: “At times like this I hope heaven really does exist”

Literally saying goodbye: “I loved watching your films”….”You will never be forgotten”

Even as a microcosm, this collection of comments represents a fascinating glimpse at one aspect of the human condition. Struggling with loss is one of the most challenging of all human experiences. It tends to push us to abandon the normal deportment we typically have and adopt different measures and positions that otherwise do not fit either fundamental knowledge we have or the holistic values we hold.

People know Heath is dead and that he cannot hear them. Yet they continue to address him directly and personally, as if in conversation (as the above quotes illustrate). The anthropologist in our midst understands this behavior as the triumph of hope and spirit over unassailable fact. We are prepared to suspend what we know to be true for the desire to connect with someone we cherish. It is also in its own way a refusal to accept death as a consuming dominion, as the Welsh writer and poet Dylan Thomas laments in Under Milk Wood.

It is facing fear and uncertainty that also evokes statements of hope that are expressed as absolute statements of fact. It makes us feel better to make confident pronouncements at this time, even though we may not normally do this is our daily lives.

It is easy to see how much the Heath Ledger brand was admired, valued and will be missed. How many real world product and service brands would have such fond attachments and be so sorely missed if they were expire and depart this world? It’s not a ridiculous thought: brands well crafted are multi-dimensional constructs with distinctly human properties and qualities (which makes the more successful ones inspire human attachment).

Getting consumer workshop and focus group participants to write a Brand Epitaph can be a revealing exercise. Often, the ambivalence can be quite shocking for Brand Managers to hear, but remains a timely wake-up call nonetheless.

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