“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”
These three sentences, written 65 years ago, introduced us to a very different kind of anti-hero. Because over in the corner of the febrile casino that night, watching a little white ball bounce around the roulette wheel, was Bond.
The movies would soon arrive and soften him. But the early Bond was little more than a cipher. In written form, Ian Fleming made it very clear while Bond could be charming, he was ultimately an introvert prone to bouts of extreme fatalism. “You start to die,” Bond once observed, “the moment you are born.”
But this was also not a man prone to prolonged bouts of depression or doubt. “Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs” was his advice. This grasp of mortality explains the extra-ordinary hedonism that pervades Bond from the outset. His love of fine wine, rich food and romantic liaisons were all a product of knowing his time on the planet was as finite as it was pointless.
The secret agent in those early books rarely opens up and is described as “only a silhouette” of a man. Fundamentally, it is Bond’s immense physicality and strength that speaks for him. He sees himself as a “poet of deeds” not words. Fleming wrote Bond as an outsider, always looking on, detached at the glamorous and fantastical events taking place around him.
A new era for Bond
Ever since Daniel Craig announced the 25th outing for Britain’s most famous secret agent would be his last in the role there has been tremendous speculation about what will come next. With billions in revenue amassed, and more in the future guaranteed, it is clear Bond will continue. But how much longer can this ancient warrior continue in a modern world?
The debate was spurred last week by news that in the latest Bond instalment actress Lashana Lynch will take over Bond’s ‘double-O’ secret agent number after Daniel Craig’s character leaves MI6. Lynch ticks the British box but has enthralled and incensed the public in equal measure because she is a woman of Afro-Caribbean descent. According to the Daily Mail who claimed the exclusive, the new Bond is “black, beautiful and a woman”.
Those of a more politically correct persuasion applauded the news. They have been arguing the next Bond must be different and make amends for more than half a century of barely concealed misogyny and colonial racism. The next Bond must be black. Must be a woman. Must be gay. Must represent the other. It’s time to re-balance.
Just as Bond must change his character and passions to reflect all that is British, strong, and hedonistic in the new era, so should any brand intent on remaining consistent in the market beyond a certain period
An equal number of conservative voices have been arguing such requests are nonsensical. They argue Fleming was very clear about the race, class and gender of his greatest creation. James Bond is a white man of careful pedigree. Privately educated and from fine Scottish/Swiss stock. His characteristics are set in stone and not to be tampered with.
I think both parties have got it wrong. James Bond should not bow to political correctness just because of the sins of the past and change for change’s sake. But I also reject the idea a Bond for the 21st century must remain the boring white male of the previous eras.
The essence of brand Bond
The trick to understanding what 007 should become and whether Lynch is a good choice is to return to 1957 and that tired stranger walking away from the roulette wheel at the Casino Royale. Like any brand intent on remaining fresh and vibrant many decades on from its creation, it always proves best to go back to the beginning before you plan the future.
Once there, the question we need to ask is what is the essence of Bond? Shorn of all other historical distractions and period details, what makes him so special that he has survived and prospered for all these years and all these people? There are experts better placed to make this decision than me but, hold my martini, if you asked me to distil Bond to a few words they would be: British, outsider, strong, hedonist.
Back in 1957 those words were best exemplified by a privately educated white man who didn’t say much, liked smoking, gambling, fucking and the occasional physical confrontation with foreigners. All of it washed down with very fine wine served from the best vintage and served at the perfect temperature.
His Britishness meant he would always look down on other nationalities. His outsider status made him a constant worry for the establishment he worked for. His strength kept him quiet and preternaturally able in any confrontation. His hedonism demanded hundreds of women and thousands of cigarettes.
But the key to refashioning Bond for a new era is not to focus on the manifestation of his character but instead to appreciate times have changed.
What Britishness means now is a long way from the white Anglo-Saxon domination of the 50s. Similarly, strength no longer necessarily means being able to choke someone into unconsciousness inside a submarine while having sex with a cocktail waitress.
And while being an orphan who went to a minor private school might have made Bond an unusual character in the rarefied world of MI6 in 1957, it’s hardly the epitome of an outsider in Boris’s Britain.
The key to refashioning Bond for a new era is not to focus on the manifestation of his character but instead to appreciate times have changed
Lashana Lynch might well make a perfect 007. Not because she is a black woman, but because she looks like she could master a very different, very modern kind of strong outsider with a taste for luxury that will never fill the empty void inside. A strong black woman with a taste for the finer things in life who finds herself marginalised within the confines of the British secret service is a film I want to see. She might fit the Bond silhouette far better than another posh white boy in a dinner jacket.
That said, it appears the producers of the Bond franchise are using Lynch to assuage those who demanded diversity rather than evolve towards it. Lynch will not take the central role in the new movie. Instead, if the leaks from the set are correct, she will play the new 007 while Bond soldiers on, shorn of his position in Her Majesty’s secret service. Either way, it’s an exciting development for a franchise rapidly showing its age.
More importantly, there is a good lesson here for marketers. As a brand ages, a marketer’s attempts to continue with the same tactics often ultimately render it inconsistent to its brand position. Time is a deceptive mistress. Days become months and months become years and gradually, almost imperceptibly, brands are caught out by shifts in culture, competition and taste.
I do not believe brands always need to change their position. I’ve worked for enough two, three, and – yes – 400-year-old brands to be able to grasp repositioning is usually the arrogant naivete of badly trained marketers. But that does not mean brands should keep executing in the same way across the decades.
Just as Bond must change his character and passions to reflect all that is British, strong, and hedonistic in the new era, so should any brand intent on remaining consistent in the market beyond a certain period.
Beauty brands that claimed to be natural a decade ago must now alter their formulas to become practically edible in their ingredients. Fashion brands that once took 20 weeks to develop and deliver their latest trends, must now take barely a fortnight from design to delivery. News brands that once printed their news onto paper and sent it out onto trucks in the middle of the night must close their presses and auction their trucks and build websites instead.
Times change, and brands – at least the ones that want to make it to their 100th birthday and beyond – must learn to remain true to their identity, but they must change and then change again. Live and then let die, as someone once wisely suggested.