A Whale of a Metaphor
One of the greatest allegorical works of all time, Moby Dick, was released 168 years ago.
And I still haven’t read it.
No spoilers. I don’t need anyone telling me that the whale was dead the whole time.
Despite being a tad behind on my 19th century classics, I do feel that I’ve picked up on some main themes from Herman Melville’s defining body of work.
Well, I’ve at least picked up on the theme that you apparently have the right to assign whatever meaning you want to the titular white whale. Despite being based off of a real life whale named Mocha Dick (not kidding), people have been giving their own meaning to the big fish for well over a century. And despite a handful of more literal readers in existence, Moby Dick has become more symbol than whale.
And say what you will about the loose analogies, but that white whale is a symbol that still holds a huge amount of meaning to countless individuals across the globe.
As someone who works fairly closely to symbols in the context of brands on a daily basis, I often wonder what makes them last. Many symbols have fallen defunct in the last 168 years and I’m curious how one as simple as a white whale can last for nearly two centuries. I wonder what Vineyard Vines would need to do to have any chance of matching that kind of iconic longevity.
As I ruminate on what makes symbols last (and if anyone still names their kid Ishmael) a few considerations come to mind on what can capitalize or capsize a symbol:
1. Overuse Fatigue - Moby Dick is 168 years old. Add a 3 to the end of that and you get the number of exclamation marks (!) Herman Melville used in his epic tale of Man vs, Whale. 1,683. Say what you will about the exclamation point or whether it was overused in this context, but the fact is, just like human beings (and whales I think) symbols can get worn down over time when used too much. Consider label fatigue. When symbols, be they in the form of word or icon, are displayed over and over and over again on everything you see, your brain becomes very good at taking the easy route in navigation and filtering out the banal. When overused, symbols become nearly as useless as the billboards you drive by on your commute every day.
2. All Words & No Deeds - Just like meaning can be diluted with overuse of a symbol, a symbol can be drained or emptied of its meaning through inaction or misrepresentation. None of the many metaphors assigned to Moby Dick would work without at least some realistic grounding or provable aspect to show why that metaphor was drawn. In short, some type of action or tangible attribute is needed to back a symbol up. Take product greenwashing as an example. When iconography or certain certification phrases are used without any real tie to what they claim, the symbol loses integrity and eventually starts to be ignored. Perhaps you’ve wondered if Fair Trade is actually fair, I certainly have.
3. Flexible Context - The big white whale can represent so many different things to so many different readers. God, fear, the sea, nature, fate, evil, fishing… Okay, maybe the last one isn’t a huge stretch, but Moby Dick still seems like a symbol that could stand for almost anything under the sun if you try hard enough. But I think that’s part of what’s made this particular symbol able to hold its own for so long. When a brand allows you to attach your meaning to a symbol (dare I say even makes you work a little to do so), the impact is not only more emotional, it’s more memorable. When Nike promotes its mission of inspiring every athlete in the world, it’s careful to add a noticeable asterisk to the word athlete. Attached to that asterisk? A stipulation that “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” When Nike lets it’s consumers assign their own meaning to the word athlete instead of defining the word through a handful of specified sports or activities, consumers are able to form more emotional connections to the symbol of the larger Nike brand.
There are many considerations to make when trying to build a symbol that swims instead of sinking - with the three above just being a sampling. Symbols take energy to build and fill with meaning, and must be carefully groomed and maintained to ensure they aren’t too inclusive or too exclusive. But if you put in the time, they can last long past what you thought would be a natural life. This is what Moby Dick has taught me.
I wonder how much I would’ve learned if I’d actually read it.