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Mystery Is Key to Creating Legendary Brands

titanic, titanic anniversary 2012, 100th anniversary of the Titanic, Deep Ocean Adventures Credit: La Fabrika Pixel S.l. |

Sometimes it takes a little mystery to raise a brand to legendary status, new research finds.

A study by researchers in the U.S. and Ireland discovered that brands do not necessarily need to present a clear, well-defined image in order to appeal to consumers. They point to the Titanic as a perfect example.

More than a century later, researchers said the name of the ill-fated steamship still strikes a chord with millions of consumers worldwide.

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"Consumer fixation with the Titanic is not simply due to the scale of the calamity, since the death toll has been far exceeded on many occasions," the study's authors, Stephen Brown of the University of Ulster, Pierre McDonagh of Dublin City University and Clifford Shultz II of Loyola University Chicago, wrote. "Nor is it entirely attributable to humankind's appetite for the macabre or merely a case of being famous for being famous."

Instead, they say the Titanic's consumer appeal is partly explained by the myths it embodies. The myth of nature trumping technology, the almost biblical lesson that great riches are worthless in life-or-death situations, and the accumulating layers of myth that have been added to the sinking by the Titanic's portrayal in pop culture.

"Equally important is the unfathomability, the ambiguity, the imponderables at the heart of the Titanic's terrible tale," the authors wrote.

They said the story of the Titanic leaves consumers pondering various questions — was the Titanic considered unsinkable, why were several ice warnings ignored and why weren't there enough lifeboats — that don't have clear-cut answers.

The authors believe it's this lack of clarity that ensures the Titanic's imperishable consumer appeal.

"This casts doubt on the long-standing assumption that brand identities should be clear, concise, coherent and consistent," the study's author's said, adding that clarity is overrated and imprecision is underappreciated.

To become legendary, they contend brands need both.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.