When Brands Banter: Designing Doppelgänger Images


From stories about Walmart as a corporate villain and pink slime at McDonald’s to jokes about Starbucks as “Starsucks” and Apple’s Bendgate. A brand’s meaning is not only created by the brand’s owner but rather by multiple stakeholders including journalists, celebrities, bloggers, activists, scientific experts, and consumers. When these stakeholders’ negative brand stories and meanings reach a critical mass they become what is known as a doppelgänger brand image. Doppelgänger brand images compete with the brand owner’s official meanings. “Frozen face” has challenged Botox’s message about authentic beauty, “Cancer Coke” has destabilized Diet Coke’s image of a harmless soft drink, and parodies about how “no food shall be grown that we don’t own” threatens Monsanto brand delivery.

Yet, doppelgänger brand images have more than diagnostic value. Some brands have used them to undermine their competition. Remember Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign that humorously contrasted Mac and PC? In 2006, the campaign not only went viral and amused global television and web audiences alike. It also helped grow sales for Apple by a whopping 39%.

Rumor also has it that Samsung had a hand in magnifying Apple’s recent Bendgate crisis, not only by creatively responding through a series of viral ads but also by actively circulate the first consumer complaints.

Microsoft has demonstrated that launching a doppelgänger brand image attack on a competitor can also seriously backfire. In 2011, the company introduced “Gmail Man” to disparage arch nemesis Google. The ad depicted Gmail Man peering into personal letters and pulling out keywords to be used towards Google’s advertising interests. Originally intended to profile Microsoft’s own Office 365 email service as a beacon of chastity and virtue, consumers viewed the ads as too “petty” and “pathetic,” ultimately leading to more damage for Microsoft’s brand than for Google’s.

Here are four simple design principles brand managers can follow when devising a doppelgänger attack:

Screen Popular Culture

The most authentic doppelgänger brand images are not created by marketers but by life itself. Smart marketers therefore establish a cultural radar to explore weak clues such as product failures, frustrations, or consumer-created jokes and carricatures about their competitors. For instance, long before Botox Cosmetic’s “frozen face” image hit the mainstream tabloids it already circulated in the proverbial brand underground: Hollywood casting agencies and film sets. 

Use Humor, Not Morals

Comparing Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign with Microsoft’s “Gmail Man” illustrates that a humorous approach beats moralistic critique at any time. Rather than overtly driving existential topics such as privacy and ethics, use humor to highlight some of the daily frustrations of actual product use. Render your target brand as a dramaturgical fool with complex features, not as an all-negative villain. As in real life, doppelgänger carricatures usually work best when they are based on subtle poking, not on totalitarian vilification.

Get Your Facts Straight

Make sure that every claim you make is steeped in facts. Doppelgänger brand images typically draw on legitimational devices such as real-world consumer testimony, photographic evidence from consumer activists, or scientific study results. These materials are important because they authenticate the brand doppelgänger as steeped in everyday consumer experience.

Avoid Schadenfreude

Doppelgänger brand images can produce real costs of social stigma and sometimes even material loss for the brand’s consumers. In these situations, Schadenfreude, a German word that literally translates to harm-joy and denotes pleasure in the misfortune of others, can stimulate oppositional brand loyalty and strengthen the very consumer-brand connections managers seek to destabilize. Similar to religious individuals whose faith strengthens when confronted with challenging scientific facts, die-hard Apple Newton fans did not respond to popular disparagements of their beloved handheld device by shunning their brand of choice. Rather, they forged even stronger and more enduring bonds.

Eric Chan, Jeremy Foster, and Manna Mathew are MBA Students in the new Customer Experience Design course at the Schulich School of Business at York University.