Thursday, April 25, 2013

10 Ways Charlotte’s Web is an Ideal Branding Case Study

One of the fun parts of being a parent is sharing with your kids the things you enjoyed at their age. Movies, toys and games, and most of all, books. It’s especially gratifying when those books turn out to be even more rich and layered than you ever realized as a kid. So just imagine my delight not only as a dad reading to his 5-year-old daughter, but as a designer, to discover Charlotte’s Web had something to teach me about the importance of good branding.

In fact, once I saw the branding allegory in this tale of a spider and her pig pal, it became impossible to ignore. And so I’ve decided to share with you the 10 Ways Charlotte’s Web is an Ideal Branding Case Study.

1. The Scenario
Wilbur is the runt of a litter of Spring piglets. He is our protagonist: a new product under threat of an early demise but for the measures taken by an early-adopter and supporter, an eight-year-old girl named Fern Arable.

“‘He’s yours [Fern],’ said Mr. Arable. ‘Saved from an untimely death. And may the good Lord forgive me for this foolishness.’”
“Fern loved Wilbur more than anything. She loved to stroke him, to feed him, to put him to bed.”

Fern sees Wilbur through his formative stages, until he is acquired by a larger entity, the farmer Homer Zuckerman. Unfortunately, Zuckerman intends to divide Wilbur into his constituent parts for a short term gain (to put it mildly).

“‘Kill you. turn you into smoked bacon and ham,’ continued the old sheep. ‘Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer as soon as the real cold weather sets in.’”

And so Wilbur must find a way to demonstrate his worth in order to win the devotion he so desperately needs.

“‘I want to stay alive... I want to breathe the beautiful air and lie in the beautiful sun.’”
“Wilbur didn’t want food, he wanted love.”

2. Believing in the Brand
Fortunately for Wilbur, he meets Charlotte, and she immediately becomes a staunch believer in Wilbur’s cause and his worth.

“‘You’re terrific as far as I’m concerned,’ replied Charlotte, sweetly...”
“‘You shall not die,’ said Charlotte, briskly ‘...I am going to save you.’”
“...She had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.”

3. Serious Business
Not only does Charlotte believe, but she takes her business very seriously.

She does her research: “I’ve watched you all day and I like you.”

She’s no stranger to hard work: “I have to get my own living... I have to think things out, catch what I can, take what comes.”

And she understands salesmanship: opening with the flourish of “Salutations” when a simple “Hello” would do.

4. Seeking the Truth
Charlotte, a natural storyteller, understands the importance of the truth. Not necessarily the tangible, quantifiable facts about a thing, but its essence. Wilbur is in fact, a pig. But Charlotte sees the more compelling truth in his character.

“‘...I have to say what is true.’”
“‘We must advertise Wilbur’s noble qualities, not his tastiness.’”

5. A Partnership
Like many successful agency/client relationships, Charlotte comes on board as a true partner. Indeed, she is only paid in the insects that Wilbur’s natural pigginess provides.

“...[Charlotte] was truly fond of Wilbur, whose smelly pen and stale food attracted the flies that she needed...”

Not only that but, skipping ahead a bit, she leaves her legacy—her children, and their subsequent perennial offspring—with him to keep him grounded and true to his brand. That is a serious commitment!

“As time went on... [Wilbur] was never without friends... Charlotte’s children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, year after year, lived in the doorway.”
“‘We like this place, and we like you.’”

6. The Strategy
After much deliberation, Charlotte develops a plan—“a trick”—to give voice to Wilbur’s essence.

“Finally, one morning toward the middle of July, the idea came. ‘Why, how perfectly simple,’ [Charlotte] said to herself.”

The plan is a campaign, its key messages written into Charlotte’s web, and rolled out in well-timed phases. First the message “SOME PIG.” Then “TERRIFIC” followed by “RADIANT” and finishing with the truest statement of them all, “HUMBLE.”

“‘Humble has two meanings. It means “not proud” and it means “near the ground.” That’s Wilbur all over...’ said Charlotte.”

7. A Compelling Execution
Due to Charlotte’s design acumen and leadership of her writers (the barn animals, in particular Templeton the rat), an immediate sensation arises celebrating the wonders of Wilbur.

“Charlotte’s web was a thing of beauty... Even Lurvy, who wasn’t particularly interested in beauty noticed the web when he came with the pig’s breakfast.”
“People came from miles around to look at Wilbur and to read the words on Charlotte’s web.”
“Dozens and dozens of strangers stopped to stare at him and to admire his silky white coat, his curly tail, his kind and radiant expression.”

8. Becoming the Brand
Being a humble fellow, Wilbur himself has a hard time believing in the messages Charlotte is delivering about him. But he becomes a believer, compelled not only by Charlotte’s faith in him but also by the undeniable beauty of her work. Wilbur sees he must live up to the brand messaging if he is to be responsible for his fate.

“When Charlotte’s web said SOME PIG, Wilbur had tried hard to look like some pig. When Charlotte’s web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried hard to look terrific. And now that the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself glow.”
“...When his audience grew bored, he would spring into the air and do a back flip with a half twist. At this the crowd would yell and cheer.”

9. The Competition
Having firmly established himself as a viable and exciting brand—thanks to Charlotte’s efforts—Wilbur must face his biggest obstacle yet when he attends the County Fair. There he must be judged against the competition, an enormous and undeniably worthy hog named Uncle.

“...Reported Charlotte... ‘He has a most unattractive personality. He is too familiar, too noisy, and he cracks weak jokes... He’s going to be a hard pig to beat, though, Wilbur, on account of his size and weight. But with me helping you, it can be done.’”

Thankfully, despite Uncle winning the blue ribbon, Wilbur is so well-loved, so intensely valued, that he is awarded an honor exceeding anyone’s expectations and secures his longevity as a viable and significant brand.

Announced over the loud speaker at a special ceremony: “On behalf of the governors of the Fair, I have the honor of awarding a special prize of twenty-five dollars to Mr. Zuckerman, together with a handsome bronze medal suitably engraved, in token of our appreciation of the part played by this pig—this radiant, this terrific, this humble pig—in attracting so many visitors to our great County Fair.”

“Mr. Zuckerman took fine care of Wilbur all the rest of his days, and the pig was often visited by friends and admirers, for nobody ever forgot the year of his triumph and the miracle of the web.”

10. The Designer Remains Invisible
Design done well should feel like a natural and inevitable manifestation of the thing it is in service of,  never tipping its cap to itself nor to its creator. And so it is with Charlotte, who goes largely unseen and unlauded for her masterful branding of Wilbur.

“Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.”

Instead, as it should be, her satisfaction is in seeing the success of her dear and worthy friend.

“Charlotte could hear everything that was said on the loud speaker. The words gave her courage. This was her hour of triumph.”
“‘...I feel peaceful. Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success.’”

And so Charlotte, ever the wordsmith, leaves us a branding mantra to live by: “By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”


  1. What a terrific stroll down memory lane, thanks!

    (One quibble: I think the rat was named "Templeton".)

  2. Right you are Vinny! Fixed. Don't know how I did that... sheesh, only read the book about 10 times prepping this post. A bit of late night brain fog I guess. Thanks.