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Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Unsinkable Brand

 A century ago the RMS Titanic steamed into the annals of disaster brands. That may sound odd, but there are those ill-fated moments that persist in our psyche—they have attributes that lend themselves to a brand experience. Some disaster brands are epic in natural scale like Pompeii. Others are man-made calamities such as Pearl Harbor. Then there are a few that are more personal because of individual and familiar faces linked to the event, like Amelia Earhart. The Titanic is a little of both.

She was thought unsinkable, and the most technologically advanced vessel of her kind—engineered to a point of luxury and safety never before known. Yet two days before completing her maiden voyage, an iceberg clipped her hull and sent the iron maiden slipping into dark and freezing waters, taking with her more than 1500 souls, and forever changing the lives of the few hundreds that survived.

The sheer thought of the largest passenger ship afloat and over a thousand people lost was more than just a jolt to people of the day. It was akin to that of the 2004 Christmas Tsunami, 9/11, the Challenger disaster, and so on. These were culture or societal-shaking events. This one wiped away not just an inconceivable number of people with one swipe, but also high-society and big business celebrities of the day, changing fortunes forever.

That's the epic part. Then there are the spine-tingling personal artifacts recovered from the wreck and their haunting familiarity. Without ever having to see the person's face, we hear a quiet roar of the tragedy in the lost child or the missing spouse, all of whom suffered those chilling last moments in dark, frightening loneliness.
A passenger's shoe on the seafloor

For more than 80-years the Titanic was a ghost—no artifacts, no sonar images, no idea at all where she lay. Only reverent silence. That allowed later generations to say, "Huh ... wonder where it is..." A luxury of detachment disappeared with her being found and documented in high definition, and with the raising of the first porcelain doll.

There's not a lot that's new in the Titanic story. Although several outlets are releasing a horde of new digitally-processed sonar mosaics, and hours of dim footage and photographs from deep inside and around the decaying hulk. Okay, so the wreck is re-imaged—again. And a previously unknown account by a long-dead survivor has surfaced.  His story is like those of other survivors—horrifying.

We've seen the wreck, we've heard or read the survivor accounts and forensic details, watched the documentaries—maybe even sat through James Cameron's 3-hour retelling of the story. Why?

It is the Titanic.

The Titanic brand is part of our collective fabric. Like her name, the brand is huge in delivering an experience—a brand experience defined by compelling words like cold, dark, lost, irrecoverable, mysterious, or empty. Just mentioning the name emotes sadness, gloom, maybe even a twinge of fear. And the part that our human arrogance struggles to overcome is that we can't fix this. We can't raise or restore her. There is no one's butt to kick in vengeance. The Titanic is forever lost.  She burns in our memory because her tragedy is so permanent. Unlike the vessel herself, the Titanic memory is unsinkable.

Just the facts: The RMS Titanic sank in the early morning hours of 15 April 1912 in the North Atlantic Ocean, four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. Learn more at National Geographic.

Originally posted April 2012.