Lovecraftian Lessons in Brand Marketing

H. P. Lovecraft’s original sketch of the now-iconic Cthulhu

Horror legend H. P. Lovecraft would have been a total buzzkill at parties. He didn’t like to go out in daylight, was a pretty staunch nativist, and held a worldview that Warner Herzog might find troubling. Yet it’s probably for the best that no one ever brightened up that outlook, since it played a big part in churning out some of the most influential horror and science fiction writing in history.

When I started reading Lovecraft last year, I wasn’t surprised to find I enjoyed the hell out of it. I had heard about his knack for suspense and world-building, and the tales did not disappoint. What did surprise me was realizing that far more went into building Lovecraft’s monumental legacy than simply scary stories. The more I read, the more I saw that this reclusive misanthrope had skills that could have been put to serious use in marketing. Whether he knew it or not, his disconcerting philosophy developed into a brand that enveloped his fiction and himself.

Master of Horror… and Buzzwords

In the worlds that Lovecraft built, the truths of the cosmos were just too much for us mortals to understand. But damn if he didn’t try to enlighten us anyway. Words that accurately describe incomprehensible concepts are understandably hard to come by, so sharing them with an audience can sounds even more difficult. Imagine trying to advertise unlimited breadsticks if the mere sight of said breadsticks caused insanity.

Lovecraft solved this dilemma by co-opting terms like “eldritch” and “cyclopean” to describe the horrid creatures and nightmarish places his stories dealt with. He used these consistently enough that they gained a very specific meaning from his context. Reading through his works, a reader begins to reflexively tense when coming across a use of “eldritch,” and one quickly learns to be both intimidated and confused when encountering “cyclopean” ruins. Today, these words are scarcely used in day-to-day life, but they are still inexorably tied to the discussion of Lovecraft’s work.

The value of strong keywords to marketers should be pretty obvious. It’s simply crucial to use a consistent and effective brand vocabulary. Beyond good old-fashioned sloganeering, effective use of SEO and social hashtags can help put your message in front of entirely new viewers if you know the fundamental vocabulary of your brand. With every subsequent exposure, persistent language in your marketing will help the consumer build a mental connection with those keywords.

Withholding the (Content) Money Shot

As soon as I finished reading a number of Lovecraft’s tales, there was a powerful impulse to use Google to figure out what the hell some of these abominations looked like. Especially things described as “eldritch” or “cyclopean.” Right off the bat you have additional engagement, and it comes from enticing interest without divulging copious amounts of information.

As far as horror goes, being choosy with the reveals can heighten the effect. What better way to keep your audience up at night than letting the monster stay in the shadows? Modern horror movies could certainly stand to learn a thing or two here. Lovecraft achieved this air of dreadful mystery simply by not overexerting himself trying to craft overly detailed descriptions of the indescribable. Decades later, we’re still racking our brains trying to picture the Dunwich Horror or the city of R’lyeh.

Granted, if you’re a marketer, terrifying people is usually not the endgame. The real point is that your content should always aim to motivate more interaction with your brand. Any time marketing materials drives someone to want more information, it’s a job well done. Lovecraft’s writing painted some vivid pictures, but just enough that his readers were driven to learn more. LIkewise, many successful brands use content such as blog posts that offer valuable insight in exchange for the reader’s time, but publishing expertise is part of a strategy to bring the reader closer to becoming a client.

Keeping the Story Canonical

If Lovecraft’s writing demonstrated frequent and dramatic tonal shifts, his stories would have had a much harder time escaping from obscurity. The man committed to the portrayal of a cold, violent universe that was, at best, indifferent to humanity. That dedication shines through most with the stories set in the shared universe of godlike beings like Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and Dagon. Even though the human characters and locations were always changing, the tales always drove the same point: that the powers threatening our world were manifold and relentless.

The true testament to Lovecraft’s brand storytelling is how the world he created thrived without him. For decades after his death, his colleagues and fans wrote pastiches that grew into a more solidified canon known as the Chtulhu Mythos. Through this network of writers (or brand advocates, if you will) one man’s creation grew into its own subgenre of fiction. How? The stories were unique, immersive and never lost sight of the message.

Today every brand has the ability to create and broadcast unlimited communications, so it’s easier than ever to get lost in all the noise. However, telling your story with both the appropriate volume and clarity can turn an overexposed audience into focused promoters. There’s nothing wrong with using variety in marketing communications, in fact it’s essential to grabbing and keeping attention. Just remember that using conflicting or irrelevant messaging for the sake of publishing content will have the opposite effect. The key is making sure that your material always supports the core idea that drives your brand.

A Cthulhu-sized caveat

I’ve mostly been singing Lovecraft’s praises up to this point, but I wouldn’t advise any marketers to go off and form a cult in his honor just yet. While his craft laid the groundwork for massive renown, his own behavior stood as an obstacle to it. For the first five years of his adult life he made no efforts to publish any of his writing. Years later, he regularly contributed to the magazine “Weird Tales,” but he developed a conflictual relationship with editor Farnsworth Wright, who rejected numerous submissions by Lovecraft. No matter how skilled his writing was, generating interest in his tales often seemed to be only a fleeting priority. At the time of his death, H. P. Lovecraft’s greatest work seemed likely to be largely forgotten by history. The successive writers who valued his work so highly saved the Cthulhu Mythos by taking the initiative to expand and share it.

No matter how compelling your story is, you have to be willing to show the world how much you believe in your brand. The idea of growing an audience solely by like-minded individuals stumbling across your materials may have a romantic appeal, but it’s a fool’s errand to expect growth from inertia. In Lovecraft’s time, this rang true because of the barriers to publishing and distributing information. Today it’s truer than ever because there are a thousand other voices constantly vying for the attention of every potential audience member. Trying to sell someone on your work can be more terrifying than any Elder God, but if you want people to believe your brand is worth their time and attention, you have to be willing to show them that it’s worth your time and effort.


4 thoughts on “Lovecraftian Lessons in Brand Marketing

  1. this is awesome advice! i’ve been struggling with how to go about this for a while now, and this post answered tons of my questions! thank you!!!

  2. Well I certainly wouldn’t have known the first thing about “brands”, but allowing the yeast of Lovecraftian lessons permeate your dough not only enlightened me, but it was fun to read. You’re a terrific writer.

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