April 4, 2016

We’re Thinking… Happiness is a Character Called Hamlet

By Gerry Hopkinson


As we commemorate 400 years since Shakespeare died this month, we look at what brands can learn from his genius storytelling – and his characters’ inspiring attitudes to failure

I have of late–but
Wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
Custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
With my disposition that this goodly frame, the
Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
Excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
O’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
With golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
Me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
How infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
Express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
In apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
World! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
What is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
Me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
You seem to say so.

This quote sums up for me the power and beauty of Shakespeare – and everything we can and should learn from him about great storytelling.

In it, Hamlet is speaking to his school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the yawning chasm between a man’s ambition and his actions. It is a sad and bitter diatribe, and it, or something like it, often appears in Shakespeare’s plays as a way of reminding us that we often don’t measure up to our dreams – we fall short, we give up, we simply fail.

Not the cheeriest thought, I hear you say? True. But it is by daring to bare his soul that Hamlet tells us what he wants to achieve; and then, in admitting that he hasn’t, he inspires us and helps us feel for him.

In our failures we become human, often more so than in our successes. It is when we strive for something greater than ourselves that we appear to be worthy of watching – perhaps we fail because of a weakness, or because of tragic circumstance? It matters not, as it is our striving that is noble and failure is simply the battle scar – but not trying, or worse not sharing our dreams or telling anyone about them in the first place is the worst crime.

Brands must tell us what is in their heart, what they desire, what they aspire to be, and also be brave enough to admit when they fail – for in the story of their failure, as with Hamlet, comes their redemption.

No one loves a show-off or someone who is always right. Too many brand stories only focus on success and leave out the ambition, the struggle and the failure. That’s a smug and boring story and it’s not likely to make you any friends.

We should take our cue from Hamlet instead (the character, and the cigar – who wore their failures well and in their melancholy won our hearts).

And here’s to us all learning lessons from that upstart crow William Shakespeare, as someone now long-forgotten once called him, for the next four centuries.

Here are some of our favourite examples:


Hamlet Cigars

Hamlet cigars offered consumers the perfect light-hearted relief to life’s misfortunes, best presented by their ‘photo booth’ commercial.

Named as one of the top 10 funniest commercials of all time by Campaign, it captures the struggles of a balding man to get a passport photo. Through humorously embracing failure, Hamlet immediately won over audiences – later being voted Ad of the Century.

Sir Richard Branson

Business mogul Richard Branson has launched over 100 companies under his hugely successful Virgin brand – however many of them are known more for failing than anything else.

Virgin Cola is his most famous (and favourite) failure, released in 1994 as one of many Virgin Drinks launches. Despite creating front-page headlines by driving a tank through New York’s streets to smash through a wall of Coca-Cola cans, the product was a disaster and couldn’t stand up to the world’s largest soft drinks brand.

However, Branson has been open about learning from his mistakes and the positives that come with them. Through accepting his failures, he strengthened his brand and helped shaped its position as a company that offers consumers something different, which is why we love it.



Domino’s Pizza launched its ‘failure is an option’ advertising campaign when it brought out its ‘Specialty [CORR] Chicken’ pizza in 2014. The takeaway company said it would be okay if the pizza was not a hit and that: “Sometimes you have to fail in order to be great.”

Domino’s was building on its long history of embracing failure. In 2009, they ran a campaign of criticisms – flashing quotes from customers including ‘Microwave pizza is far superior’ and ‘I think Domino’s should start over.’

Their ads acknowledged that the pizzas were improving, and asked for another chance. The company were praised for recognising what the public thought and, significantly, customers tried the pizza and loved it. Store sales rose and quarterly profits doubled as a result.

Sir James Dyson

The Dyson Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner was launched in 1993. Before it even went on sale, Sir James Dyson spent 15 years making 5,126 versions of the cleaner. All failed – and spurred him on. He believes that we learn from failure, so it becomes crucial for innovation and an essential part of success.

He told Entrepreneur Magazine: “It’s a matter of having the right attitude – humble, curious, determined, willing to fail and try. (I hire people who) embrace the fact that failure is interesting.”