What the Zombie Apocalypse means for your brand
Ever wondered what the Zombie Apocalypse means for your brand? Perhaps not.
But you may have wondered why the Zombie Apocalypse has become so popular on
the cultural landscape. It seems that everywhere you turn these days you’re faced
with a Zombie horde looking to take over the world.
What is a Zombie? Zombies are human beings that have been taken over by a greedy,
powerful, and insatiable hunger, stripping individuals of all talents and uniqueness.
The only thing that remains is the drive to join other mindless zombies, relentlessly
seeking to slake their hunger for human brains. Like all fantastical creatures, (e.g.
Aliens, Vampires, Witches, Monsters), Zombies are cultural memes that allow us to
wrestle with wider cultural problems around how we define and enact our
From a popular culture point of view, Zombies tend to emerge on the cultural
landscape in the midst of anxieties around labour unrest, hyper-consumerism
and fears about the loss of human individuality. The Zombie Apocalypse takes
these fears one-step further. They actually suggest not just the elimination of
particular individuals, but a struggle in which all of humanity is deeply threatened,
and the existence of the human race called into question. We suggest that brands
have an opportunity to drive relevance, differentiation and persuasion by offering
resolution to the cultural anxieties expressed through the stories of Zombie
In Colonial Central Africa in the early 1900’s, reports of British Colonial agents
turning unsuspecting Africans into Zombie laborers, forced to work throughout the
night doing the bidding of Colonial settlers swept through Northern Rhodesia, now
modern day Zambia. Fritz Lang’s early and classic film, Metropolis, uses highly
evocative Zombie imagery to represent the de-humanizeded modern labour
experience, in what was surely a time of rapid industrialization, worker alienation
and unsettled norms.
(hyperlink embedded for Metropolis day shift clip.)
As the global economy shifts unpredictably, and opportunities for the young seem
ever more elusive, the idea that an individual might not have a lot of control over her
work and productivity (i.e. like a zombie) does not seem unreasonable.
As the pathways to success become more and more narrow, there is an increasing
pressure to demonstrate that you have the drive to do whatever it takes to get a job
done; the cultural meme of a relentless laborer, working under the direction and
control of others, to feed an insatiable, uncontrolled and ultimately destructive need
does not seem that far fetched. In fact, it sounds remarkably similar to the Northern
Rhodesian zombie labourers from a century ago.
Zombies are a cultural storage space for our fears about what a current global
economy demands from us and the destructive outcomes it may demand.
George Romero’s 1978 film ‘Dawn of the Dead’ helps introduce the modern zombie
to contemporary audiences and takes place as waves of zombies besiege a shopping
mall, a place called out in the postmodern west as ‘temples of mass consumption.‘
(hyperlink to Dawn trailer on Youtube)
Thus positioned, Romero’s zombies are an allegory symbol for mindless
consumerism run amok, with many new entries in the zombie canon echoing his
indictment overtly or in spirit. The brilliant and comic ‘Sean of the Dead’ (with title
honoring Romero’s piece), has a loveable Simon Pegg trying desperately to get to his
local pub for a beer with his best friend as the world dissolves into a sea of zombies
around him. He’s as mindlessly driven by consumption fetishism as the flesh-eaters
chasing him down. Brains or brew, both are singular in vision and focus,
unwavering and unstoppable in their quest.
That the resolution of Sean’s consumption problem is resolved as a coming of age
story speaks volumes about cultural tensions around infantilized and dysfunctional
Contrast these ideas with the North American cultural imperative that everyone
must discover and celebrate their individuality.
What is important about the cultural imperative of individuality is that it showcases
our belief that the best parts of ourselves emerge from our individuality and our
uniqueness. The promise for the future likely resides as small pieces each of us
contain, pieces each of us have hidden inside ourselves. This cultural imperative
butts up against the realities of our perception of a global economy and creates
quite a cultural tension.
Post-apocalyptic zombie narratives like ‘The Walking Dead’ become vehicles to help
us explore what core of the human remains, and can re-build, after rampant
consumption has left our environment a nasty and brutish place. How will we, as
ordinary and un-tested individuals, rise to the occasion? For tweens negotiating
adolescent and commodified identities with youthful zeal and optimism, there’s
‘Warm Bodies’, a Zombie love story that’s probably best considered only from the
safe distance of this blog, but still points to the potential to find love, and humanity
in the hyper-consumerist space of modern youth.
The Zombie Apocalypse:
The Zombie Apocalypse takes all of these discrete anxieties, combines them and
then elevates them to the next level. In movies like World War Z characters are
swept up in an onslaught beyond their control. There is no opting out. Every person
is required to engage with the Zombie struggle, even if it means they ultimately lose
and become a Zombie themselves.
Thus, those fighting the Zombie masses are only doing so because they have no
other option, just like the office worker who must engage and negotiate a global
economy and play by its rules in order to keep his job. In order to survive either of
these situations, an individual must recognize her or his own internal strengths,
manage to nourish them, while continuing to effectively engage powerful and
seemingly unstoppable forces that can be their undoing if she or he makes one
What This Means For Your Brand
(Max Brooks, prolific writer and expert at converting
hordes of Zombies into hoards of cash.)
Max Brooks’ personal brand is that of guru of Zombie lore, successfully tapping into
these cultural tensions. But his road to riches has already been taken.
So where does your own brand enter into the conversation?
Time and time again we hear consumers struggling to navigate the sea of hyper-
consumption communications and cues, compounded by a quest for balance in
feeding their internal, dynamic selves against the need to appear productive,
successful, and ready to do whatever it takes to get through the day.
When we decide to put a product that we love on our bagel in the morning and we
believe it is nourishing our internal soul, but we also believe it may physically slow
us down and not contribute to our productivity, are we making ourselves more
vulnerable to the Zombie horde outside our window? Or are we shoring up our
defenses and feeding our individual strengths?
Oftentimes we categorize the products we use as ones that feed our internal selves
or ones that help ready us to take on the world, tending to only honor one or the
other halves of the tension, with few offering solutions for its resolution. In turn, the
consumer herself is left to manage or negotiate that cultural tension on her own.
When we hear our consumers finding ways of either rationalizing their images to
show us how productive they are, or exclaiming to us in various ways how they are
not just like everyone else, we can tell how the product has been categorized in their
world and more importantly, that the cultural tension remains unresolved.
On the other hand, a brand that can effectively resolve these tensions has the
potential to achieve iconic cultural status as it, like Max Brooks’ instructions on how
to survive the Zombie Apocalypse offer us a way to face a demanding world while
ensuring the best of us stays in tact. Brands such as Nike, and Apple have done a
terrific job of helping us ‘realize the best of our inner selves’ while tapping into our
inner anxieties about remaining on top of our productive game. (Brands such as
Starbucks have taken a slightly different route, giving us a way to fuel our
individuality, as well as literally fuel our bodies to keep going, and offering an
important physical and metaphorical networking space along the way.
How would your brand negotiate the Zombie Apocalypse?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhF7dQl4lco (Nike Y2K Jogger)