Tradition, bureaucracy, chocolate and the charisma of design
In the early twentieth century, the German sociologist Max Weber described three kinds of power in society. There is traditional power that is passed through generations and so becomes accepted (for example, a monarchy); bureaucratic power that is based on adherence to rules (e.g., the law) and charismatic power – a much deeper concept than just the charm that contemporary usage of the word suggests, that is about the ability to influence based on the full merits of the source itself, often in response to these other types of power. To give human examples, JFK exhibited charismatic power, as does (like him or not) Elon Musk. Weber’s three types of power were never intended to be mutually exclusive. A truly great leader – the late Mother Teresa is a good example – may benefit from all three.
The business of design is almost exclusively about the deployment of charismatic power. Design is at its most useful and powerful when it challenges deep-set norms and breaks rules. Yet, it too must accept the co-existence of traditional and bureaucratic power, as Toblerone has just found out.
It has been much reported recently that the image of the Matterhorn that appears on every Toblerone pack has been ruled by Swiss authorities to be an inadmissible element because not all of its manufacturing is in Switzerland these days. It’s not an unfamiliar position – just as champagne can only come from Champagne, Parma ham from Parma, and Cornish pasties never from Devon – and it’s not necessarily unfair either. Mondelez-owned Toblerone have therefore announced that they will amend the brand’s design assets to feature a generic mountain, not a facsimile of the famous Swiss peak.
There are two questions that arises from this is. The first is, does that matter? – most importantly, in commercial terms. The answer to that is, most probably, no. The charismatic power of the Toblerone brand identity is not the Matterhorn. It’s the colour and summit-conquering confidence of the typography contrasted against the pack. It’s the pyramidical shape of the chocolate and hence the box. And, it’s the cleverly concealed face of the bear hidden in the mountain side that is always there, whether you acknowledge that you’ve seen it or not. These features are where the charisma lies. A rational comparison of the mountain on the box to a real-world mountain that few people would even recognise, really doesn’t matter a jot. In fact, its exclusion may even be liberating: freed from a graphic tradition – ironically by bureaucracy – perhaps Toblerone can extend its line of sight toward even more vertiginous and ambitious design ideas. So long as Mondelez keep their focus on charismatic design, the commercial future of Toblerone will be just fine.
The second question though, especially as I have just dismissed the commercial impact of this change, is why is this even news; why has it made headlines around the world? The answer to that goes back to Weber too. Tradition and bureaucracy may sound to many like dull sources of power but they are massively influential and any challenge to their authority sparks intrigue, some fear and much interrogation. It takes a lot to displace them. This is why so many well-intentioned social uprisings or, for the same matter, challenger brands, fail. And this speaks to the role of design, for if its charismatic power is not strong enough then it will be overwhelmed by the incumbent forces. The responsibility of design in a case of change is not just to adjust, but to add power and value. I don’t worry about Toblerone’s mountain not being the Matterhorn, so long as their new design landscape has the Weberian charisma this iconic brand deserves.