From Beowulf to Blue Jeans: How poetry has impacted the world of marketing


When I first learned that the earliest use of the word “brand” was in the eleventh century epic poem Beowulf, I was pretty smug. Before that, you see, I had never been able to explain exactly how my English degree related to my job in marketing. I always felt like there was a connection between the two and, finally, I’d found it.

Beowulf was just the beginning of my obsession with uncovering the ways literature overlaps with advertising and marketing. Poetry, in particular, has a long history of giving ads meaning in an efficient way. This is largely due to the compactness of poems and their ability to say a lot with a little.

French poet Paul Valéry once said that “a poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words” — that poetry transports audiences to a place outside of our usual way of thinking. And when we’re transported out of the ordinary, we’re more perceptive, vulnerable, and aware than ever.

That’s another reason why top brands are harnessing the power of poetry: it sticks with people. From soda to SaaS, poetry has been used across countless campaigns to capture the attention of audiences. Here are a couple noteworthy examples from the last decade:

Levi’s: “Go Forth”

Levi’s commercial from its 2009 GO FORTH campaign used “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”, a poem by Walt Whitman, regarded as one of most important American poets.

Originally published in 1855, “Pioneers” details the European expansion in the West, particularly the Gold Rush, and the possibilities it offered. Whitman basically wrote the handbook for American exceptionalism. That, paired with use of the collective “we”, helped him rouse the public imagination, making people feel like they were part of something greater: America. It was a no-brainer for Levi’s, a distinctly American brand, to leverage Whitman and align themselves with the ideals he endorses.

Levi’s used Whitman’s poetry to connect themselves to themes and worldviews which elicit specific emotions. It made sense: in 2009, there was a sense of pride in America. It was the early days of the Obama administration and people had hope after the worst of the Great Recession was over.

Ten years later? Not so much — and Levi’s realized that. That’s why it launched its “Circles” campaign to demonstrate a commitment to the importance of diversity, inclusion and participating in a global culture.

WeTransfer: “Please Leave”

Poetry is not only used for its thematic content, but for its form, too. WeTransfer’s branded film “Please Leave” features a spoken word poem by feminist author Roxane Gay. The film hinges on the idea that, if you use WeTransfer, you won’t need to spend as much time glued to your devices and, consequently, you’ll have more time to spend honing your creativity.

Spoken word poetry has historically been used as a mouthpiece for revolution, social justice and activism. It has a long legacy as the tool that carved out a space for marginalized voices. We, the audience, instinctively understand the importance of Gay’s words, not simply for their meaning, but because of how she delivers them. WeTransfer is capitalizing on this spoken word tradition to speak to an issue that’s bubbling up in the public consciousness: technology addiction.

Coca Cola: “Wonder of Us”

Wonder of Us” by Coca Cola ran right before the national anthem at this year’s Super Bowl. The ad featured an original poem authored by copywriter Rebecca Wadlinger, inspired by quotes from Andy Warhol’s 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.

Like Levi’s “Circles” campaign, this ad had a singular goal of rallying people around diversity and “togetherness” in a time when people are divided. And what better way to do that than creating a whimsical, Dr. Seussian cartoon. In referencing Andy Warhol — the icon of pop art, affable indifference, and effortless style — Coca Cola is invoking a time when things were easier and people felt more united.

Here’s the transcript for the ad, handwritten with care:

All of this to say

Poetry has always been a powerful medium. While Beowulf is known as the first English text ever recorded in writing, it was actually around way before that. Historians suggest that bards recited it at mead halls for centuries, just from memory. They learned it by heart and passed it down through generations of storytellers.

So it makes sense that marketers have turned to poetry: Memory is a crucial piece of the puzzle in today’s attention-starved marketing landscape, and poetry may be one of the best tools we have to activate it. Not only that, it helps brands articulate who they are and what they stand for without explicitly saying it. It is a new-old way to reach audiences of all ages — potentially for years to come.

Because that’s the thing about poetry (and marketing): when it’s good, it stays with us. Sometimes for a long, long time.

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