Whoever masterminded the original honeybee PR campaign did a fantastic job.
Taking a 20 million-year-old venomous insect and transforming it into an instantly recognizable international brand, with a sky-high approval rating and access-all-areas star status, demonstrates marketing skills of the highest order.
Like lemons, horses or meerkats, the bee adds instant likeability to a product and its inclusion is a sure sign of premiumisation. You’ll pay more for something with bee signage all over in it, but you’ll feel good about it.
Of course, the bee-image is neatly packaged in our mind’s eye, but the reality is often a little fuzzier. While we all think we know what a bee looks like, what’s that thing bumping its head against the windowpane? It’s stripey yellow and black and buzzy. Well it looks like a bee, but it could be a wasp, you know, or maybe a bumblebee. Or a solitary hornet, perhaps?
And what does the man on the street really know about bees ? A quick survey reveals that everyone can rattle off a couple of traits, one positive and one negative. Bees make honey, and bees sting. But we can deal with this duality: the trade-off between the honey on your tongue and the quick pinch of a sting is just a chip off the block of the human condition: pleasure and reward standing toe to toe with pain and risk.
Yet bees get a pretty good press, even in literature: Lord Canterbury in Shakespeare’s Henry V endorsed them: “For so work the honey-bees, creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom”. In this and countless other literary allusions, the industriousness, inclusivity and instinctive communality of the bee-hive anticipate today’s progressive social enterprise model.
Bees have always had a part to play in human history: Napoleon purloined the form of the bee (a visual inversion of the fleur-de-lys of the usurped Bourbon monarchy) for his own propaganda purposes. In 1815, the napoleonic bee-emblem was marching confidently towards world domination. How ironic that, just under 200 years later, the bee is now the standard-bearer of a natural world in retreat, besieged by pollution, disease and neglect.
Yes, I get it. But the clear danger is that, as ever more agendas hitch themselves to the bee brand-wagon, we overload the cart. Take this “When we go, we’re taking you all with us!” graffiti in Shoreditch:
Sure – it’s clever and sassy. But I’m repelled by a credo of mutually assured destruction put into the mouths of bees. The moral suasion of the Cold War has no place in the reciprocity between bees and mankind. This is not a talisman against eco-catastrophe, it is an extraordinary rendition of the bee-brand.
So while we must acknowledge the feelgood factor which attaches to bees, perhaps we should be bold enough to step back from the box-ticking frenzy. And consider. If we spend the bee-image too freely, we debase the currency. In the marketing world, overexposure can breed contempt, or, worse, indifference.
As a beekeeper, I can almost hear the bees creaking under the weight of humankind’s fond imaginings.
So here’s my plea: let’s not overburden them with meaning.