Why Is "Z" Always For Zebra? - Deliberate Ink

zebra printEverybody knows what a zebra is. We’ve known since… Well, we’ve just always known.

But not really.

A zebra is a totally abstract concept to most Westerners: it’s a striped horse that lions eat. That’s the extent of our knowledge. But the triumph this knowledge brings–when we learn it at 2 or 3 years of age as part of the alphabet–knows no bounds. We don’t question why we should know this (like we did trigonometry), and we honestly can’t think of much else that starts with “Z” right off the tops of our heads.

It’s not the only one.

I asked someone from Senegal what the word for penguin was in his language, and he didn’t know. I’m not naive enough to imagine his countrymen don’t know penguins exist. Still, somehow the word never made it into their lexicon without the help of French or English. Yet for both francophones and anglophones, it’s important to have a word for penguins, and that word is among the first children learn in school–even though neither languages knew of their existence until recently, either.

Dinosaurs were among the creatures I easily digested, spelling and all, as an aspiring zoologist in grade school. I remember reading in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park a few years later the opinion of one the main characters that the popularity of dinosaurs among children might come from the comfort of recognizing, pronouncing, and remembering the complicated names of creatures no one knew much about. This abstract familiarity might give children a sense of control over the unknown, turning a 100-foot-long monster into a tame–if too-often purple and singing–friend.

At 13, I was young and impressionable, and so I have carried Crichton’s paleontologist’s opinion with me into the adult world.

We all have a natural fascination with unknown and even unknowable things. It helps us stretch our imaginations, and bring more of the unknown into the world of the known–or at least guessed. But there are some things–objects and concepts–that are real, and known, but will never venture into our purview, ever. Yet they’re introduced to us the way our own names are.

Not only that, but using “everyday” creatures and personalities–things that are more caricatures to us in daily life than actual beings–to represent a brand helps us draw a direct line from that thing to the brand, and with a creative license that knows nearly no bounds. I mean, who can possibly be offended by a gecko? He is what he is… which is whatever the brand decides he is.

It allows the brand an out, as well: here, there are no weird star personality/brand entanglements or questionable acting roles. “Chester Cheetah” and “Tony the Tiger” know no other life but the one given them by their brand. C is always for “Chester” and T is always for “Tony.”

So I bring you all this way to ask, casually, off the top of your head, what is the thing your brand stands for that no other brand does? How can you ensure everyone who encounters your brand comes away with the same thing you do?

 Photo credit: Teesha Dunn, courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.

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