Can Your Advertising Pass The Acid Test?

What makes a theatre production great is what makes a brand great. This shouldn’t be surprising: strong brands are expressions of a core idea that their customers love; and, great shows make us fall in love with language, a character, a relationship, an idea, or pure visual beauty—something that cuts to the core of what the show is really about.

It’s hard to talk about modern theatre without talking about Peter Brook; it’s even harder to talk about the relationship between theatre and branding without him. Synthesizing the works of the great theorists before him, Peter Brook has spent his life examining what it means to get to the heart of the theatre: what makes an event a theatre performance; what is minimally necessary to put on a show; and, most importantly, how to make an audience in a specific time, in a specific place care about and understand the essence of the play.

In his seminal work The Empty Space, Peter Brook introduces the concept of The Acid Test—a simple criterion for determining the difference between a bad theatre production and a great one: does the production contain a moment that, if recalled, a spectator can remember what the play was about years after the show ends?

That’s it. But, think about how powerful of a test it is: Years after you’ve seen a show, the only thing left is a memory; you’re not going to remember all the details of the show. But, if there’s a singular moment burned into your mind that captures the essence of the play, it was able to connect with you on a meaningful level.

In movies, these are the moments we often see in highlight reels, moments that bring back memories and make us want to recapture the way they made us feel: Garland’s “There’s No Place Like Home” at the end of The Wizard of Oz, Brando’s “I Could’ve Been A Contender” speech in On The Waterfront, or Bogart sending away Bergman at the airport in Casablanca.

Great brands aren’t any different: anything the consumer interacts with should clearly convey the essence of your brand. Think about advertising: How many great ads have a memorable image that captures the essence of the ad and the brand? I’d bet every one of them. How many bad ads don’t have an image that captures the essence of the ad and the brand? I’d bet every one of them again.

Apple’s 1984 ad has it: the image of the runner entering the crowd of drones says everything.

Bernbach’s “Think Small” ad for the Volkswagen captures both elements too: the image and the two-word phrase say it all (the text adds to the story, but the essence is there in the image).
Or, look at George Lois’s Esquire covers: Andy Warhol sinking in a Campbell’s soup can; or Muhammad Ali, hands tied behind his back, pierced by a barrage of arrows: clear images that sell the cover story by conveying the core idea in one, clear image.

All these shows, ads, and covers have one thing in common: they’re created by people who fully understand who their audiences are and what they’re really offering to their audiences.

Great theatre productions and great brands can’t be built without this understanding.

How well do you understand your brand now? Ask yourself:

  • If someone were to ask you to explain your brand in one or two sentences, what would it be?
  • Who does your brand really serve?

They’re big questions that should have short answers.

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