Word up

In several recent conversations, I have found myself searching for a particular word. It is – take a deep breath – the word that describes a thing that is a part of a wider situation or concept, in which the constituent thing embodies much or all of the characteristics of the wider situation or concept and is, therefore, a useful shorthand way of describing or understanding the wider situation or concept.

For example: I find the nature of a certain airline’s on-board service (long-haul) is neatly summarised by a warning noise that sounds throughout the ‘plane just before the aircraft turns its engines on to full at the beginning of the runway for take-off. Here are my reasons for this:

• It’s not designed to benefit passengers (we are already strapped in to our seats). It’s for the crew, to tell them to sit down. Much of the airline’s service seems centred around what suits the crew rather than the passenger.

• It sounds awful. It would be hard to find another two-note sequence that has such tonal dissonance. It manages to sound hostile at just the point that passengers need the opposite. Dissonance and hostility are wider themes in their service too.

• It is laughably out of date. The timbre of the sound is unlike anything I’ve heard since my ZX81 computer got thrown away in favour of a Spectrum in 1982. This airline’s service hasn’t moved with the times either.

I could go on (I really hate this noise) but won’t. The point of this example was not to go deep into airline service, but to explain the concept behind the word I am looking for. The noise is just one small thing but, for me, it represents the wider issue of which it is just a part, rather well.

So, what’s the word? I have spent some time searching for this of course, but haven’t quite found an answer that seems right yet. Some contenders have emerged though and I list a few here together with the reasons why I don’t think they are right:

Microcosm. Probably the closest, but implies that the thing is really a miniature version of the whole thing, which is not what I’m saying. I’m looking for something more conceptual than this. Back to the example, saying that the noise is the airline’s serv
ice in microcosm doesn’t seem right.

Epitome. In the sense that it means “the perfect example” then it is not completely wrong. But the thing here is not quite the perfect example so much as a perfect capture of its characteristics – and that’s not the same, I think.

Synecdoche. I read a piece in The Guardian at the weekend that suggested to me that this was the word I crave. But my
OED suggests that this is more a linguistic term – a substitution of a word describing a part of the whole for the word describing the whole – than a way to describe a more abstract concept. 

Now, I’m holding my hands high in the air at this point in admission of my ignorance. Perhaps one of these words is indeed the right one, and no doubt there is some word – obvious or not – that describes what I seek. But the reason I am searching for this word is not just out of intellectual curiosity (although I admit that’s part of it) but because the concept is an important one in the professional world of brand consultancy and design. In fact, it is the perfect way to describe what we do. We define and create things – words, identities, communications, objects, events, etc. – that are conceptually representative of the broad intent of the wider proposition to which they belong. When audiences experience these things, together or in isolation, their experience is therefore representative of the wider proposition, i.e. to have the experience of the thing is to have the experience of the organisation, company, or brand of which they are part. Because the human brain looks for patterns and consistency, positive experiences will build positive expectations for similarly branded experiences, driving willingness and enthusiasm to engage – ergo, business success. But by the same token, negative experiences will create wider negative expectations, and these may prevail over positives (that’s a human brain thing too) so consistency across all experiences is important too. In the ideal brand, every experience of every thing is, in itself, representative of the whole; experiences are interrelated and multi-dimensional, spider’s web on spider’s web of interconnected threads. There are tangible things, like products or buildings; intangible things, like customer service or social media; meta-things, like brand identity or how an organisation engages its own people in its brand; and, micro-things, like a small detail on a piece of packaging that just makes everybody smile. Each one of these is a representation of the brand and needs to be properly aligned. 

There is a really important distinction to draw here between brand consultancy and management consultancy or, to put it better, those consultancies that have a design capability and those which do not. We both start out by setting out the master proposition at the organisation-wide level. That, in itself, is a complex and involved task. But where I am convinced that brand consultancies, like The Partners, offer far greater advantage to clients, is that we then translate the proposition into the things that audiences actually experience: the things that take strategy beyond theory, and make it real. We create things that embody the characteristics of the wider proposition of which they are a part, thus making the proposition more compelling, more desirable, and better understood.

Now, if only there was a word for that…

First published on The Crossed Cow, 7 November 2011.