Two iconic brands from the literary world went head to head to determine who is greater. What insights can we glean from the lives and works of Ian Fleming and John Le Carré?
Neither Ian Fleming nor John Le Carré require much introduction. Both novelists are brands in their own right; cultural icons and household names. Part of the very fabric of British society. Both are titans of spy fiction who have arguably raised the bar, transcending genre fiction into the giddy heights of literary fiction!
We all love a good story. From the nursery rhymes and fairy tales we listened to as we drifted off to sleep cradled in our mother’s arms, to the novels or TV shows that defined our teen years, to the novels that helped shape who we were to become. Stories can captivate us, engage us, transform us and teach us like nothing else. They do this by tapping into both our conscious and unconscious emotions. Done well, stories stimulate both the emotions and imagination of the teller and the audience. Something that many brands are utilising to forge personal connections with their consumers. But consumers have limitless choices. Why do they engage with some stories and not others? What can we learn?
Intelligence Squared / Tim Bowditch
This week, Intelligence Squared hosted what they called a “cultural combat event”. They threw down the gauntlet and asked the question – who is the greatest spy novelist? Fleming or Le Carré?
In one corner, representing Fleming was Anthony Horowitz; author of the bestselling teen spy Alex Rider books and the official Bond continuation novel Trigger Mortis. In the other, David Farr advocated for Le Carré. Farr is a playwright and theatrical director, and Emmy-nominated screenwriter of the BBC’s adaptation of Le Carré‘s The Night Manager.
The debate was bought to life by four well-known British actors who performed key scenes to illustrate the key points each side raised.
Both brands share a lot of similarities and it’s from these that lessons can be learned.
1) Both authors write what they know
Both authors write about the world of espionage — a world they have both inhabited. Fleming worked for Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during the Second World War and was involved in planning Operation Goldeneye, a real allied plan (and a 1995 James Bond film!) Le Carré worked for the British Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service in the 1950s and 1960s. The mole George Smiley hunts in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is supposedly based on Kim Philby, the infamous British double agent. Clearly, both authors created characters based on their own lives.
A story based in reality, even if it’s embellished with the magic wand of creativity, brings a brand’s message and values to life in a way that consumers can believe in. You need to be authentic to resonate. Consumers aren’t stupid. They will sniff you out.
2) Both authors created a radical new type of hero apt for their time
Fleming created James Bond in 1952 in Casino Royale, seven years after the end of the Second World War. A time still of austerity and rationing, the Cold War, the atom bomb, no sunshine, no travel, no glamour. James Bond was nothing like the heroes that had gone before. “He was colder, harder, morally ambiguous”, says Horowitz. “He was the first modern spy.” The world’s first superspy. The films later portrayed him as suave, sophisticated and a lady killer too!
Le Carré, following the very public accounts of the compromise of British Intelligence, further revolutionised the concept of a hero with the creation of George Smiley and later characters like Jonathan Pine. Both, according to Farr, belonged to a world that was far from glamorous, but in fact “seedy, ugly, evil and banal”, where life was a constant compromise and full of incompetent people reflecting a modern dilemma and a deep, emotional search for the truth.
Arguably, both authors encapsulate the world and time in which they lived. A brand that’s prepared to take risks, to break the mould, to be disruptive through understanding who its consumer is or wants to be, and reflects that back to them through adapting to their evolving needs, will be successful.
3) Stories operate successfully both visually and in the written word — creating strong brand loyalty
The stories created by both authors have captured the public’s imagination, spawning 26 films in the case of Bond and eleven films and several TV shows in the case of Le Carré. Bond has been played by eight actors, Smiley by five. The visualisation of the stories has created some of film’s best loved iconic moments, as well as the most famous movie quote of all time: “The name’s Bond, James Bond”. Together with inordinate amounts of merchandising materials. Horowitz summed it up best” “James Bond transcends the books in which he finds himself, he’s bigger than fiction”.
Any medium can be used to tell a story. A brand that’s clear on what its story is, and how best to translate this across different communication channels in a consistent manner, becomes a compelling proposition. A brand that can cultivate a personal connection or even a relationship with an image or figure gives itself the opportunity to establish long-term brand loyalty. The key to success is knowing which story to tell in which medium.
Each brand is characterised by its differences, by what sets it apart from the competition. As Horowitz puts it, “the cold, treacherous, dark convoluted world of Le Carré” stands in stark contrast “the warmth, passion, and sheer fun of James Bond”.
The audience chose Le Carré — who would you choose?