The Infinite Model

Genotypes and Phenotypes in Storytelling


We all know that as human beings we understand the world and ourselves, and transmit cultural knowledge to others, through the use of stories. Stories are fundamental to our existence, and perhaps one of the things that makes human beings unique in the animal kingdom.

In branding and advertising, storytelling plays a central role. As Russ Klein, the CEO of the American Marketing Association and former Global CMO of Burger King said to me recently, “Brand is experience to the power of storytelling”. A brilliant summation of everything we do.

But when it comes to stories, there’s a fundamental insight that has to be understood. It’s one that we’ve borrowed from the field of biology, and it’s a key underpinning of how we work at BBR and L’Institut Idée. It’s the dual concept of genotype and phenotype.

Simply put, genotype is an organism’s genetic code, or DNA. Your DNA was formed when you were conceived by your parents, and unless you have an identical twin, it’s unique to you. And it remains a constant throughout your life.

A phenotype is a surface trait, an expression of DNA on the surface at any given time. Our phenotypes, from eye and hair colour to height and weight, vary throughout life and in the case of humans, can be manipulated or altered through a number of means.

This gives us an important analogy to apply to stories and brands, in that there are a finite number of persistent and universal genotypes – or archetypes – that transcend our cultural differences. A famous one is that of Pygmalion, the Greek myth of the great sculptor.

In this myth, Pygmalion’s gifts were so profound that his sculptures seemed to live and breathe. One day, this gift got the best of him, and he fell hopelessly in love with his greatest creation, a sculpture of a beautiful woman. Night and day, he pined for her, unable to eat or sleep, until he was at death’s door. The gods took pity on him, and transformed his creation into a real person, thus saving his life.

But the problem was, she was new to this world, and it fell upon Pygmalion to teach her the customs and behaviours of human life. This story in its essence forms the basis for George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which inspired the musical My Fair Lady. Which in turn inspired one of the most successful films of all time, Pretty Woman. In other words, the myth, the play, the musical and the movie are phenotypic expressions of the same genotype.

More recently, I was on a flight from Asia, and tripped upon a compelling new show called The Good Doctor, about a young autistic man who is also a genius surgical resident. His aptitude for diagnosis is matched only by his lack of social skill, resulting in him having literally no filter as he speaks. Both hilarious and disturbing at times, the show seemed strangely familiar to me, while also being something quite new – and suddenly I realized that it reminded me of both The Mentalist and House, both of which inspired by the Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. All of these stories center on an exceedingly brilliant but bracingly blunt, at times socially inept or indifferent, main character. Someone who transcends and violates social norms at the same time.

It is endlessly fascinating to contemplate this duality: the persistence of certain underlying ideas, but the seemingly infinite variations in expression that are possible.

So, when we are branding or communicating a brand, what we really ought to be doing, is identifying the unchanging idea (genotype) underneath, while creating a new and excitingly relevant expression (phenotype) in the moment. And in this way, what we do is not so different from what filmmakers, television writers – and even biologists do.

– WY