Fictional Brand Design
The research presented here is just a summary of a broader and more detailed analysis, developed for a Master Thesis in Communication Design at Polytechnic University of Milan, titled Fictional Brand Design. The book is now available for purchase.

Buy the book
The term fictional branding refers to the design and use of brands that do not refer to any service, product, company or organization that actually exists. They can come to include any type of brand, as well as political institutions, military organizations, and more. This research aims to offer a comprehensive look at the topic, through historical and theoretical research, as well as to analyze the state of the art of the practice. In order to carry out a more precise and in-depth analysis, it was decided to define a precise field of investigation, a context in which to go and observe the presence of fictional brands in order to focus on a series of case studies that shared a set of design and usage principles. The field considered is that of long-form narrative audiovisual works, thus including films, television series and video games.
1. Branding
1.1. From Marks to Systems
The practice of branding can be traced back to ancient times when pottery fragments and inscriptions were found inside tombs bearing traces of identifying signs and symbols belonging to various populations in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Over time, these symbols began to be used as indicators of quality and ownership. During the Middle Ages, ranchers branded their livestock and soldiers were branded with the monogram or emblem of their lord. Monograms, which were originally a single letter decorated with special designs, were used by rulers in the Holy Roman Empire to mark written messages and other forms of communication. Heraldry brought the use of images of animals and birds associated with objects of power to represent various noble houses, castles, and cities.
Arms of knights of the Garter, 1672-1677.
In Japan during the same time period, stylized monochrome representations of plants or animals enclosed in a circle called "mon" began to be used. With the onset of the colonial era, the first examples of corporate identity were developed. The first joint-stock companies were born, allowing a range of private investors to share in the risk and profits of these trading missions. The Dutch East India Company was one of the first in history to develop a corporate identity, which was stamped on all ships, arms, flags, colonial settlements, maps, coins, and even slaves.
A silver ingot, a plate, a glass and a coin with the Dutch East India Company mark (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC)
In the 18th century, as businesses expanded their trading boundaries and new classes of consumers entered the market, it became more important than ever for each supplier to distinguish itself from the competition. The coat of arms of business owners often became their first logo. However, more abstract aesthetic choices were scarce until the red triangle of English brewer William Bass, dating from 1875, which is one of the earliest examples of a purely abstract logo. At the beginning of the 20th century, Peter Behrens was hired as the art director of the Allgemeine Elektricitäts Gesellschaft (AEG), a Berlin-based company operating in electromechanics and electrical engineering. He is considered the father of corporate identity, the graphic expression of a company's vision and values, and was one of the founding members of the Deutsche Werkbund, an association whose aim was to combine the development of industry with the applied arts to make German companies competitive in the international market.
The Bauhaus school of applied arts, founded in Weimar in 1919, had a significant impact on the history of graphic design by adopting a functional versus an expressionist approach.
In the first decades of the 20th century, modern totalitarian regimes such as Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism applied graphic identity techniques to modern propaganda, which increased their visibility and impact.
Two pages of Organisationsbuch der NSDAP, a manual indicating a set of graphic rules and organizational principles of the Nazi party.
The arrival of many German designers in the United States helped to spread early twentieth-century European ideas into the American corporate market. The Swiss Style of typography established itself successfully beginning in the 1950s, in part due to the founding of the first design studios that were responsible for designing the first coordinated identity systems in the modern sense of the term, for the multinational corporations of the time. These studios redefined the concept of corporate identity, giving it the meaning it still refers to today, with the use of a set of rules and principles such as the use of grids, simple layouts, strict typographic choices and geometric logos. By the late 1960s, the development of a corporate image had become the norm for any company that wanted to give an up-to-date self-image. The ideas and personal tastes of individual designers were gradually replaced by systematic and rational approaches, managed by increasingly large studios and teams. The introduction of identity manuals helped create order and consistency in the application of the logo in all its manifestations.
The evolution of branding continues to this day, with companies investing in brand identity and design to establish a unique and recognizable brand. The use of digital media and social networks has brought new challenges and opportunities to the field of branding.
The New York subway visual identity manual designed by Unimark (1966-1970).
Some posters designed by Peter Beherens for AEG.
1.2. Branding Today
Today, branding is an intricate discipline that brings together numerous interconnected elements, each of which needs to be carefully regulated to create a cohesive brand image. To understand the mechanics governing branding, it is useful to analyze its constituent elements.
Terminology is one of the first elements of branding that needs to be understood. Corporate identity was one of the first terms to emerge in the discipline in the 1950s, and it refers to a company's overall identity, including its visual appearance and how it presents itself to the world. It includes elements such as the logo, color scheme, and other tangible and intangible elements, used consistently and coordinated throughout marketing materials. The term brand identity, on the other hand, refers to the image of a specific brand, often a product or service offered by a company.
Many large companies own and govern multiple brands. Brand architecture is concerned with defining the hierarchy of relationships within a family of brands owned by a company. This can include the overall structure of the portfolio, as well as the relationships between different brands and how they fit into the overall corporate branding strategy. Brand architecture helps ensure that the company's different brands are consistent with each other and work together to support the company's overall goals. Alina Wheeler identifies three main types of brand architecture: monolithic, endorsed, and pluralist.
Fedex employs a monolitich brand architecture.
The Coca Cola Company employs a pluralist brand architecture, like many other beverages and food companies.
Each branding project has the primary objective of developing a brand design language, which is the visual expression of the brand. This is the fundamental means for consumers to recognize and remember the brand and must be codified down to the smallest detail, including the name, logo, colors, typography, and use of images.
Modern branding strategies involve the implementation of numerous touchpoints. A touchpoint is any point of contact between a customer and a brand that can affect any stage of the customer journey, starting from the initial phase of first approach to the brand to the possible subsequent commitment to purchase or enjoyment. Some of the most common touchpoints when designing a corporate identity are advertising, social networks, website, business cards, email signature, packaging, merchandise, and events. Advertising touchpoints can include any medium or media through which a brand promotes itself, such as television and radio commercials, print ads, online ads, billboards, and sponsored content. Social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others, allow a brand to connect with its audience in a more personal and interactive way and sometimes even have a real-time relationship. A brand's website is typically the centerpiece of its online presence and provides detailed information about the brand and its products or services. Business cards and email signatures are crucial components of a coordinated image, and packaging and merchandise can serve as additional touchpoints. Events are another touchpoint and can range from product launches to trade shows and conferences.
Piazza del Liberty in Milan, renewed by Apple which built an underground Apple Store there.
Interbrand publishes an annual ranking of the top 100 brands with the highest market value in the world on its website.
2. The History of Brands in Stories
The development of joint-stock companies in England, which were primarily associated with the exploitation of overseas colonies, made the British public one of the first to develop a growing skepticism of private enterprises, after numerous scandals, war crimes, and tax frauds associated with companies such as the East India Company and the South Sea Company. This sentiment was reflected in works of fiction such as Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit and Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, which criticized the deceptive and fraudulent practices of businesses during the Railway Mania period.
A significant moment in the evolution of this debate is the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in the United States in 1890, which aimed to prevent monopolies and limit the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few large companies. The act resulted in the dissolution of Standard Oil, which controlled a vast majority of the oil industry in America.
The impact of World War I and II had a great effect on public perception of corporations. During the wars, industrial giants were transformed into patriotic heroes and essential components of the Allied war effort, stifling skepticism about their activities.
After World War II, there was a growing reaction against the authoritarian regimes that had caused destruction and suffering for the past decades, and the state became a frequent antagonist in works of fiction. George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 are some of the most famous works that portrayed oppressive and manipulative states.
The symbol of the fictional state of Tomainia in The Great Dictator (1940)
A growing criticism of private corporations that emerged again in the 1960s, as intellectuals warned of their increasing influence and power. Works such as William Whyte's The Organization Man and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit reflected this sentiment, highlighting the conformity and lack of individualism encouraged by corporate culture. Ian Fleming's Operation Thunder depicts a criminal organization known as SPECTRE, organized along corporate lines and driven solely by profit. This depiction reflected a growing concern about the unethical practices of corporations and their potential to act with impunity.
The 1980s marked a significant shift in the relationship between private companies and the state, with the rise of neoliberalism and the ideologies of politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. This era saw a push towards deregulation and privatization, with the emphasis on free market ideals, individual freedom, and limited government intervention. One of the leading proponents of this thinking was the economist Milton Friedman, who famously argued in his book Capitalism and Freedom, that the only social responsibility of a business is to increase the profits for its shareholders.
This worldview has had a profound impact on popular culture, particularly in science fiction. Films like Soylent Green and the Alien franchise depict corporations as faceless, heartless entities that prioritize profits over people. In these movies, corporate interests often result in dystopian futures, where the Earth is overpopulated, overheated, and undernourished, and where resources are controlled by a powerful few. Even in children's animated films like WALL•E, we see the theme of unbounded corporate greed causing catastrophes. In the movie, a corporation called Buy n Large controls all sectors of business and infiltrates the political system, rendering the Earth uninhabitable.
Buy n Large signage on a polluted and inhabitable Earth and inside the Axiom spaceship in WALL•E.
This depiction of corporations as villains has become so common that it is now a cliche. However, it is not without merit. Real-world examples like the Enron scandal and the 2008 financial crisis caused by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers have further exacerbated the public's mistrust of big business. The rise of IT companies and their unchecked access to consumer data in the digital age has only heightened these concerns. Television shows like Black Mirror take this concept to its logical extreme, depicting a near-future in which startups exploit data and technology unscrupulously and unrestrictedly. In this world, companies prioritize profits over ethics and morality, resulting in a society that is in chaos.
Science fiction magazine covers from the 1950s and 1960s (Galaxy Science Fiction, Science Fiction Quarterly, and Satellite Science Fiction).
3. Cinema and the Graphic Designer
The history of graphic design in film can be traced back to the early 20th century, when films were silent, and intertitles were used to provide additional information to the viewer. D.W. Griffith was a pioneer in using intertitles to establish narrative continuity in his films, and he used different fonts, backgrounds, and visual compositions to distinguish between opening credits, dialogue, and narration.
Different styles of intertitles in Intolerance.
The introduction of sound in the mid-1930s changed the language of film and the relationship between films and viewers. Expository intertitles continued to be used, but their function became more selective and creative. Graphic designs in films can be divided into three main categories: opening and closing credits, expository intertitles, and diegetic graphic objects. The European film industry dominated the international market before World War I, but the war destabilized it, and Hollywood saw this as an opportunity to establish its worldwide hegemony. The Hollywood system controlled all aspects of the film industry, including production and distribution, and gave rise to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Art directors played an important role in film production, managing the work of other art directors and members of various departments. European film movements, such as German expressionism, Italian neorealism, and the French nouvelle-vague, challenged the dominance of Hollywood, but it was in the United States that an important milestone was reached regarding the role of design and designers in cinema. William Cameron Menzies was awarded the title of production designer for his work on Gone with the Wind, which expanded the function of the art director beyond the creation of sets and scenery to include the responsibility for visualizing a motion picture.
The work of Saul Bass, a pioneering graphic designer, revolutionized the creative potential of opening credits. Prior to Bass, opening credits served a purely functional purpose, introducing the title and cast without any connection to the story. Bass's contribution was to create a "film within a film," in which the opening credits set the mood and introduced the film through visual metaphors in the form of simple animations. He used simple elements such as geometric shapes and typography to represent complex narratives, and his minimalist, modernist approach helped make many of his creations iconic in both film and design history. Bass's legacy has had a profound impact on modern and contemporary cinema, influencing many title designers and giving visibility to the practice of graphic design in film.
Opening credits are an essential component of a film, and every film must have opening and closing titles that express its own graphic identity. However, titles constitute only one of the possible manifestations of graphic language in a film narrative. The next two decades of the film industry were defined by the clash between the hegemony of North American and European productions. This period, commonly referred to as New Hollywood, saw the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers who grew up watching television and foreign cinema. Stories and plots became more sophisticated and careful in their depiction of reality. Part of this change also came in the form of the growing phenomenon of "blockbusters," high-budget, highly profitable films that were the first to employ digital special effects. This technological evolution, from traditional optical and physical-mechanical special effects to computer-generated graphic processing, was destined to mark a turning point in film history. Hollywood was gradually establishing a new kind of cinematic aesthetic through increasing control of all aspects of the image.
The digital revolution made it possible to incorporate the computer into the filmmaking process as the main tool for editing and all image manipulation techniques. The role of the graphic designer within a film production was not recognized in the United States by the United Scenic Artist Union until the late 1980s, ensuring for the first time the certainty of being credited in the credits of a production. The presence of at least one graphic designer among the members of a production has become essential today, thanks in part to the increasingly strict enforcement of copyright laws in the entertainment industry.
The title sequence of Anatomy of a Murder, designed by Saul Bass.
4. Building Narrative Worlds
4.1. World-building
The concept of world-building in media studies refers to the process of creating and developing detailed and coherent fictional worlds within narrative media texts, such as films, video games, or novels. This process involves the creation of a fictional setting rich in culture, history, and geography, often including its own rules, laws, and technologies. Mark J. P. Wolf, a professor at Concordia University, wrote the book Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012) to investigate the practice of world-building. Wolf traces the practice back to Homer's Odyssey, where the islands visited by Ulysses during his travels constitute one of the first fictional narrative worlds in history. Some scholars even believe that the ability to devise imaginary worlds is innate to humans and derives from the evolutionary process. Before this subject became of interest in academia, authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis had already discussed and theorized about the creation of fictional worlds. Tolkien used the term "subcreation" to refer to this process, where the prefix "sub" differentiates it from divine creation, which originates from nothing and on which everything else depends.
In the 1990s, Janet H. Murray examined the creation of imaginary worlds and noted how the advent of new media encourages new approaches and new kinds of nonlinear narratives. Murray envisioned a new "hyperserial" format that integrates a digital archive, such as a website, with a broadcast television program. This digital archive would present virtual artifacts from the fictional world of the series, including diaries, photo albums, and phone messages, as well as birth certificates, legal briefs, or divorce papers.
Lev Manovich introduced the concept of the "database narrative" in his book The Language of New Media (2002). Manovich argued that the creation of a work in new media can be understood as the construction of an interface to a database, and the user of a narrative traverses a database, following the links between its records established by the database creator.
Henry Jenkins believes that storytelling has become the art of world-building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium. The world is bigger than the film, bigger even than the franchise, as fan speculation and elaboration expand it in various directions. Jenkins argues that a world can exist without a story, but a story cannot exist without a world.
David Bordwell notes the growing popularity of world-building dynamics in recent years. More and more films have been at pains to offer a rich, textured sense of the world that the story inhabits. Bordwell believes that this trend is related to the rise of franchises and the desire to create worlds that can sustain multiple stories across multiple media.
The map of Middle Earth, contained in the first volume of the first edition of The Lord of the Rings.
4.2. Environmental Storytelling
In the field of video games, the technique of environmental storytelling has become increasingly important over the years. This level design approach deals with creating game environments that can tell a story to the player passing through them, without relying on direct exposition like character dialogues or cutscenes. Instead, the story is conveyed through the elements that characterize and populate the scenario.
Clara Fernández-Vara, a researcher at MIT in Media Studies, points out that in many cases, environmental storytelling operates through indexicals, a term that comes from Charles Peirce's semiotic theory. Indices are signs that are physically connected to the idea they want to communicate (such as street signs indicating the direction to a city, smoke indicating the presence of a fire, or symptoms indicating the onset of a disease).
In environmental storytelling, designers use indexes to communicate information about the game world to the player. While it may seem natural to associate environmental design with set dressing and set design in the film industry, this connection is inaccurate. Films control and direct the viewer's gaze through editing and shot choices, while video games give players control over their view and movement within the game space. This fundamental difference means that environmental storytelling requires different strategies and design paths from those used in the film industry. Environmental storytelling actively involves the player in the story-building process, as they put together clues, traces, and information dispersed by the designers within the environments. Players reconstruct a story through fragments, in an active process that depends largely on their willingness to explore and make sense of what surrounds them.
Environmental narrative is often conceived as a parallel or tangential narrative that does not contribute fundamentally to the understanding of the main story, but allows players to discover additional aspects of the game world. However, some games use environmental storytelling as a way to tell rich, multifaceted stories without resorting to interlude scenes. In these games, exploration of environments becomes a real game mechanic.
Two games that have contributed significantly to the development of environmental storytelling are Bioshock and Portal. In Bioshock, players are thrown into Rapture, a ruined underwater city where time seems to stand still. The environment takes on the role of introducing players to the game world, as there are no introductory dialogues or direct exposition. All the spaces, rooms, and squares are meticulously detailed and populated with neon signs, billboards, and statues that immerse players in the story of the city. The Art Deco-style architecture and furnishings, as well as celebratory posters bearing phrases from the founder, reveal that the city was built by an industrial magnate who wanted to build a utopia isolated from the world and dedicated to the celebration of human ingenuity and resourcefulness. The decay and neglect that the city has fallen into are evident through decorations, streamers, and balloons, indicating that something went wrong on New Year's Eve 1959.
Portal is a puzzle game that emphasizes environmental storytelling to contextualize the player's actions. The game's simple structure involves using a gun to generate interconnected portals and traversing obstacle-filled rooms. The narrative context justifying these actions is provided by the player's participation in scientific tests using the Portal Gun. The game's use of environmental storytelling is expanded in Portal 2, which explores the history of Aperture Science, the company behind the Portal Gun and the test facilities. The game uses signs, information boards, posters, and newspapers to reconstruct the company's history, from its beginnings as a shower curtain factory to its collaboration with the US government in unconventional weapons research.
Portal 2 (2011).
Bioshock (2007).
4.3. Transmedia Storytelling
Transmedia storytelling has become a popular topic of discussion in the research world over the past two decades. The concept was first introduced by Henry Jenkins, who defined it as a story that unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole.
The ideal form of transmedia storytelling involves each medium doing what it does best. For example, a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics, and its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so that you don't need to have seen the movie to enjoy the game, and vice versa. Any given product is a point of entry into the franchise as a whole. Jenkins cites the Matrix franchise as an excellent example of the use of transmedia storytelling. Key information is conveyed through three action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. Thus, there is no single source or reference text to turn to in order to obtain all the information needed to understand the Matrix universe.
Jenkins also agrees that transmedia storytelling reflects the economics of media consolidation around the concept of "synergy." Modern media companies are horizontally integrated, holding interests across a range of what were once distinct media industries. A media conglomerate has an incentive to spread its brand or expand its franchises across as many different media platforms as possible. The current configuration of the entertainment industry makes transmedia expansion an economic imperative, yet the most gifted transmedia artists also surf these marketplace pressures to create a more expansive and immersive story than would have been possible otherwise.
Expanding a narrative world in a transmedia way can serve several functions. It can deepen the personalities of certain characters, investigate more deeply the world in which the story is set, or serve as a bridge between the events of a work and its sequel. Addressing the topic of expanding a narrative world, Scolari identifies four possible strategies that can be used to broaden the horizons of the original narrative and transpose it into other media: interstitial micro-stories, parallel stories, peripheral stories, and user-generated content platforms. Ideally, each individual narrative contribution should be accessible and enjoyable as a stand-alone element, while making a unique contribution to the narrative apparatus as a whole.
Game designer Neil Young coined the term "additive comprehension" to refer to the way each new media text adds a new piece of information that forces the user to revise and reformulate his or her understanding of the story as a whole. Striking a balance between creating stories that are comprehensible to novice viewers but still interesting and non-repetitive for fans is one of the biggest challenges for transmedia narrative producers.
The Matrix narrative universe can be explored throughout films, comic books and video games.
5. Fictional Branding Practices
5.1. Brand Placement
Whenever a real brand appears in entertainment products, specifically in film, television series, and video games, there are two possible scenarios: product placement and creative choice.
In a product placement setting, a company pays for its brand to appear within the work, and the way in which the product or brand image appears is regulated by agreements between the company and the production. In the creative choice scenario, the presence of a specific commercial brand is requested by the authors of the work to provide authenticity and credibility to the narrative world in which the story is set. In the case of a product placement, the way in which the product or brand image appears within the film, series or video game is strictly regulated by agreements between the company and the production. Often, in the case of film products, a screen time (the minimum amount of time for which the brand is to be framed by the camera), rules of filming and representation (which can range from the size of the product on the screen, to the level of lighting), and the relationship with the actors on stage (tending to prefer interactions by the lead character) are established.
On the other hand, when a brand is included by creative choice, the reasons may be varied, but usually, they are united by the need to provide authenticity and credibility to the narrative world. The relationship between producers and companies is different in this case, and often the latter grant the use of their brand image subject to compliance with certain rules that can limit expressive possibilities.
Filmmakers often prefer to opt for the creation of entirely fictitious brands to avoid any kind of agreement and have total creative freedom. Famous is the case of Apple, which, while often granting the use of its products in films and television series, places as a stipulation that they cannot be used or associated with antagonistic or negative characters within the story.
Brand partnership between Fortnite and Doritos.
5.2. Redesign
Visual identity redesign is an important process that every company or institution goes through at some point in their lifespan. Whether big or small, this process has an impact on the coordinated identity of the brand. The reasons for a visual identity redesign can vary, from keeping up with the times and staying competitive in a constantly evolving market to responding to a crisis in the company, redefining values, or embarking on new business directions.
When it comes to brand redesign within stories, there are two types of scenarios that can be distinguished: redesign within the narrative and redesign outside the narrative. In the first case, redesign assumes relevance within the narrative and becomes a real narrative tool. For instance, in the television series Mad Men, the redesign of the Sterling Cooper and Partners' logo is a clue to the evolution and change within the story. This change reflects the agency's merger with another consulting firm and its rebranding to become a new entity. The new identity is unveiled through a press release by the AMC television network, which perfectly traces the format and methods of the era in which the series is set. In this case, the redesign of the logo and its various applications adds depth to the story and can highlight narrative developments.
Beyond the case of Mad Men, there are other examples of redesigns that act in a much more subtle way, not being at the center of any overt and fundamental narrative turn but simply enriching the context and the world in which the story is set. For instance, in the film Grand Budapest Hotel, the story of the hotel of the same name is told through a time jump of some 30 years, from 1932 to 1968. One of the elements that help the viewer to understand and metabolize this flash-forward is the hotel's new signage, which changes from an intricate art nouveau style to the use of geometric stick lettering.
In the second scenario, redesign outside the narrative finds its reasons solely due to a change in the artistic direction of the audiovisual product. This type of redesign is common in the case of remake or reboot operations when it is decided to re-tell a story that has already been told in the past or in the case of a new adaptation. In these cases, it is often believed that by updating the visual compartment of the work in all its aspects, including the graphics department, the product can become more appealing to the audience. However, the moment of redesign does not take place within the narrative world but outside of it. The new brand image is not connected in any way, narratively speaking, to that of the original work. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon to maintain some connection to the original design to avoid confusion in longtime viewers.
Press release for the rebranding of Sterling Cooper & Partners.
5.3. Recurring Fictional Brands
There are many examples of fictional brands that have transcended their original narratives and have appeared across multiple works that are not connected in any way. These fictional brands can be divided into two groups: those that are created by a particular author and those that are created by prop houses.
The first group of fictional brands is linked to a specific author and can be considered a signature or reference to the author's earlier works. For example, Red Apple Cigarettes is a fictional brand that appears in several of Quentin Tarantino's films, including Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. This brand is always depicted as popular and widely available in the world of Tarantino's films, serving as a parody of major cigarette brands. Other recurring fictional brands in Tarantino's films include Acuña Boys Tex-Mex Food, Big Kahuna Burger, G.O. Juice, K-Billy, Tenku Brand Beer, and Teriyaki Donut. These brands allow Tarantino to maintain full creative control in every scene of his films, avoiding having to submit to brand placement agreements.
Red Apple Cigarettes advertisment in Kill Bill Volume 1.
The second group of fictional brands includes those created by prop houses. These companies offer advanced services for their clients, such as designing and creating custom graphics. Prop houses also have a catalog of props that they already have, which can be used in productions that do not require a large amount of props. One example of a fictional brand created by a prop house is Heisler beer, created by Studio Graphics, the graphics department of Independent Studio Services (ISS), one of the most renowned prop houses in the United States. Heisler beer appears in more than 50 movies and television series, including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The Walking Dead, Glee, and How I Met Your Mother. ISS has produced numerous other fictional brands over the years, including Let's potato chips, Glencallan whiskey, and a host of other brands covering food, alcoholic beverages, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, fashion magazines, and more.
One of the oldest recurring fictional brands is Morley cigarettes, created by Earl Hays Press for Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho in 1960. The Morleys were not used in many productions during the 1970s and 1980s because large tobacco companies, such as Philip Morris, were among the main financiers of films and television series where the main characters smoked recognizable and popular brands. However, after a series of laws outlawed the possibility of advertising cigarette brands in movies and TV series, Morleys returned to frequent appearances. Morley cigarettes are the most widely used fictional brand in film history, and their popularity grew particularly following the X-Files series, where one of the main antagonists is an avid Morley cigarette smoker.
One reason why productions often use fictional brands is when the brand in question must necessarily be associated with a negative event or behavior, out of narrative necessity. One of the most famous fictional brands that originated from this reason is Oceanic Airlines, first seen in the Flipper series in 1965. This brand has become popular and has been used in numerous productions, including Lost, 24, and Fringe.
Vandalized Oceanic Airlines advertisment as part of a promotional campaign for Lost.
Independent Studio Services offers a variety of production-ready fictional brands.
6. Outside the Fiction
6.1. Marketing Campaigns
In recent years, marketing strategies for movies, TV shows, and video games have shifted to actively engaging the fictional brands present in the narratives. These highly articulated operations integrate multiple touchpoints, from digital such as websites and apps, to billboards, installations, and even dedicated events. The campaigns leverage the communicative power of graphic design elements within the stories to create user engagement by bringing users into the narrative world. By exploring the parallel story of the fictional brand, users can expand their horizons and explore aspects of the brand that may not be explored in the original work. Sometimes these interventions take cues from the work and develop them further. The advertising campaign must be coordinated with the production to ensure that it doesn't present a misleading and different image of the fictional brand than the original authors intended. There are many different types of approaches to these campaigns, from the most minimal to the most elaborate and complex.
One of the most common options is to build an online presence through the creation of a website. For example, the movie Okja created to promote the latest product from the Mirando Corporation, a breeding company owned by the movie's main antagonist. The site popularizes the Super Pig Project through a paradoxical aesthetic that evokes environmentalism while addressing issues that are anything but environmental.
Initiatives outside the digital realm are also gaining popularity. The advertising campaign for the third season of Better Call Saul focused on the fast food chain Los Pollos Hermanos, owned by Gus Fring, a famous character from the original series. Pop-up stores were opened in various locations, serving fried chicken (for free) and largely adopting the coordinated identity seen in the series.
Los Pollos Hermanos pop-up store in Milan.
An event for press and influencers was organized to promote the Homecoming series. This included a preview of some episodes and an experience simulating participation in the Homecoming program (in the series, it is a rehabilitation program for soldiers returning from war zones) inside the Homecoming Transition Support Center. Participants were able to explore numerous locations inspired by those seen in the series, with an evocative 1970s aesthetic.
An example of a transmedia campaign that fully exploits the characteristics and potential of a fictional brand is the one that 20th Century Fox, together with the studio Ignition Interactive, carried out to promote Prometheus, the first prequel film in the Alien film saga, released in 2012 (Behance project). The company in question is the Weyland Corporation, a multinational corporation at the forefront of robotics and space exploration in the universe of the story. The campaign was launched with the release of a video at the TED2012 conference of a mock talk by the founder of the Weyland Corporation (played by Guy Pierce) at a TED talk set in 2023. At the end of the video, the main touchpoint of the campaign, the Weyland Corporation website, was introduced. The site was not directly related to the movie, but appeared to be a real web portal of a large multinational corporation. From the user interface to the language used, everything was seamlessly integrated into the narrative world of the movie. It was possible to obtain information on a wide range of topics, including the company's history of growth over the years, financial reports, details of some of the space missions planned for the future, and the specifications of some of the products, such as the android David 8, who also appears as one of the main characters in the movie. The latter section, in particular, could be unlocked by entering certain codes released through the company's social channels.
Website of Weyland Yutani, part of the promotional campaign of Prometheus (2009).
6.2. Defictionalization
Defictionalization, also known as reverse product placement, is the process of transforming a fictitious brand into a real one that exists outside of the fiction that originated it. Scholars Muzellec, Lynn, and Lambkin identified four different types of brand types, including product placement, Proto-Brands, conventional brands, and reverse product placement.
The success of defictionalization can transform the emotional value attached to a fictitious brand into actual economic value. Examples of successful defictionalization include Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and the Dunder Mifflin Paper brand from The Office.
Muzellec, Lynn, and Lambkin also note that it is necessary to distinguish defictionalization from merchandising, as defictionalization allows a fictional brand to take on an independence of its own, while merchandising relies on the correlation with the entertainment product that generated it.
They also warn that the value of a Proto-Brand can be easily exploited by third-party entities if not carefully protected in legal terms. The case of Duff Beer from The Simpsons is an example of this, where a Mexican entrepreneur managed to register the trademark and license production of a beer branded Duff Beer without the owners of The Simpsons benefiting in any way.
Unofficial Duff beers in Mexico.
Furthermore, a further distinction is made between two different types of fictional worlds: those that can be enjoyed through linear products such as films or series and those that are interactive and virtual, found within video game experiences. The possibility of interacting with the fictional brand within the game world places these on another level than others that can simply be observed within a narrative. In the case of video games that have an online component, where numerous users can meet and interact in a shared space, products associated with a specific fictional brand may even come to have substantial value in the game economy.
Proto-Brands refer to brands that have not been made available in the real market that, however, while not having economic value, capture the imagination and elicit an emotional attachment from consumers. Defictionalization allows Proto-Brands to potentially become successful real-world brands.
Dunder Mifflin Paper from The Office.
6.3. Grassroots Initiatives
In today's entertainment industry, cultivating a community of loyal fans has become increasingly important for large companies. This involves developing editorial and engagement plans that can engage fans of the product as much as possible, bringing them together via online channels, mainly through social networks, and beyond. The production of merchandise can also prove to be a great revenue opportunity, particularly in the presence of a loyal audience that wants to own something physical related to the audiovisual product. A fictional brand within the narrative can facilitate this process, as it can be an extremely versatile means of attracting the interests of fans of the film, series, or video game in question. Having a logo and a coordinated identity that refers to a given audiovisual product gives the possibility to generate numerous series of content and applications, imitating the practices found in real branding projects.
However, not all production houses take advantage of this possibility, even when there are well-crafted fictional brands within their work that generate interest and fondness among a large part of the audience. There can be many reasons for this, such as feeling that the production effort would not generate enough revenue to sustain it, or simply not having any interest in undertaking this type of activity.
Sometimes, grassroots phenomena develop to fill this void because of the existence of a community of users interested in additional content and products that are not being met. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, made possible by the spread of accessible services and portals that allow people to showcase and sell their creations. Online platforms have established themselves over time as virtual stores where one can find any kind of unofficial gadgets or merchandise related to a great many phenomena of popular culture, particularly with regard to movies, TV series, and video games. Some of the most popular products are those related to fictional brands. It is possible to find a huge variety of items, ranging from mugs to T-shirts, from stickers to caps, all customized with the graphics of the fictional brand of reference.
One of the most popular sites is Redbubble, which allows any user to upload their own designs and provides a whole range of services, including printing on numerous media and shipping to eventual buyers. The great ease and immediacy of the service, which is based on a demand-driven production system, has made it well known among fans of this kind of product.
Another popular online store in this field is Etsy, which specializes in cultivating a more "artisanal" community of sellers. In fact, the products found on Etsy are often of higher quality since they are created by the artists themselves who offer them for sale.
Besides Redbubble and Etsy, the Fictional Corporations site is another popular online store that exclusively offers products dedicated to fictional brands. All gadgets are categorized according to the relevant brand, and it is possible to explore them according to the medium of the original work, such as film, series, or video game. Grassroots initiatives involve more than producing and selling unofficial merchandise related to a fictional brand.
There are numerous other types of initiatives that invest in different areas. For example, there are cases of people who have independently developed websites related to a specific fictional brand. One such case is, which takes the form of the website of the Waystar Royco company, a conglomerate that operates in the fields of information and entertainment and is at the center of the events of the Succession series (2018 - ), and, which serves as the corporate portal of the Lumon company that appears in Severance.
Patches of fictional brands made by DemogorgonPatches available on Entsy.
Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” Cinema Journal 23, no. 3 (1984).
Atkins, Annie. Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking. Londra: Phaidon Press, 2020.
Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Carmi, Elio. Branding Design Oriented. Bologna: Fausto Lupetti Editore, 2020.
Fagan, Bryan D., and Jody Condit Fagan. Comic Book Collections for Libraries. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
Frutiger, Adrian. Segni & Simboli: Disegno, Progetto e Significato. 1978. Reprint, Viterbo: Stampa Alternativa, 2014.
Gross, Halley, Joshua Bradley, and Dinah Bakeer. The Art of the Last of Us Part II. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Comics, 2020.
Guida, Francesco E. Comunicazione Coordinata per i Beni Culturali: 4 Progetti Italiani. Napoli: Valentino Editore, 2003.
Hachen, Massimo. Scienza Della Visione. Spazio e Gestalt, Design e Comunicazione. Santarcangelo di Romagna: Maggioli Editore, 2007.
Haskin, Pamela, and Saul Bass. “'Saul, Can You Make Me a Title?': Interview with Saul Bass.” Film Quarterly 50, no. 1 (1996): 10-17.
Heller, Steven. Design Literacy: Understanding Graphic Design. New York: Allworth, 2014.
———. Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State. Londra: Phaidon, 2008.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. La Mia Battaglia. Roma: Thule Italia, 2018.
Holland, Norman Norwood. Literature and the Brain. Cambridge, Massachusetts: PsyArt Foundation, 2009.
Hollis, Richard. Graphic Design: A Concise History. Londra: Thames & Hudson , 2001.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press, 2008.
Kress, Gunther R. Literacy in the New Media Age. New York: Routledge, 2003.
LoBrutto, Vincent. The Filmmaker's Guide to Production Design. New York: Allworth Press, 2002.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002.
Müller, Jens, and R. Roger Remington. Logo Modernism. Colonia: Taschen, 2015.
Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck, Updated Edition: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. 1997. Reprint, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2017.
Muzellec, Laurent, Christopher Kanitz, and Theodore Lynn. “Fancy a Coffee with Friends in Perk?” International Journal of Advertising 32, no. 3 (January 2013): 399-417.
Muzellec, Laurent, Theodore Lynn, and Mary Lambkin. “Branding in Fictional and Virtual Environments.” European Journal of Marketing 46, no. 6 (2012): 811-26.
Olins, Wally. Wally Olins. Brand New.: The Shape of Brands to Come. Londra: Thames & Hudson, 2014.
Olins, Wally, and Conway Lloyd Morgan. International Corporate Identity. Londra: Trafalgar Square, 1995.
Pater, Ruben. CAPS LOCK: How Capitalism Took Hold of Graphic Design, and How to Escape from It. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021.
Peirce, Charles Sanders, and Peirce Edition Project. The Essential Peirce, Volume 2: Selected Philosophical Writings? (1867-1893). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
Scolari, Carlos Alberto. “Transmedia Storytelling: Implicit Consumers, Narrative Worlds, and Branding in Contemporary Media Production.” International Journal of Communication 3, no. 3 (2009): 586-606.
Serafini, Luigi. Codex Seraphinianus. 1981. Reprint, Milano: Rizzoli, 2013.
Simoncelli, Chiara. “La "Bibbia" Rivista. Ricerca, Analisi e Riflessioni Sugli Strumenti Di Coordinamento Visivo.” Tesi magistrale, Politecnico di Milano, 2018.
Suter, Beat. “Narrative Patterns in Video Games.” In Narrative Mechanics, 51-78. transcript Verlag, 2021.
Truffaut, François. Il Cinema Secondo Hitchcock. Milano: Il Saggiatore, 2014.
Tude, Helena. “Design & Cinema: A Timeline of Graphic Design in Film.” Avanca Cinema 3, no. 2 (2020): 651-60.
Wheeler, Alina. Designing Brand Identity: An Essential Guide for the Whole Branding Team. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2017.
Wolf, Mark J.P. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Online Sources
Allan, Angela. “How the ‘Evil Corporation’ Became a Pop-Culture Trope.” The Atlantic, April 25, 2016.
Boes, Nick, Wilson Saloj, and Matt Webster. “Prometheus: Transmedia Campaign.”Behance, February 7, 2014.
Boyle, Simon. “James Bond Bosses Set to Face Agonising Re-Shoots after Delays to Save Product Placement Deals...” The Sun, January 25, 2021.
Brown, Mark. “How Level Design Can Tell a Story.” Video. YouTube, March 11, 2020.
Busygin, Aleksey. “Aleksey Busygin – Medium.” Medium. Accessed November 16, 2022.
Costello, E. O. The Warner Brothers Cartoon Companion. Accessed January 24, 2023.
Desjardins, Jeff. “Chart: The Evolution of Standard Oil.” Visual Capitalist, November 24, 2017.
Dude. “Los Pollos Hermanos.” Dude, 2017.
Fernández-Vara, Clara. “Environmental Storytelling: Indices and the Art of Leaving Traces.” Presented at the Game Developers Conference, 2012.
Friedman, Milton. “A Friedman Doctrine: The Social Responsibility Of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” The New York Times, September 13, 1970.
Guardian Staff. “Nazi-Inspired Ads for The Man in the High Castle Pulled from New York Subway.” The Guardian, November 25, 2015.
Harris, Harry. “The Insignia of Alien.” The Insigna of Alien. Accessed November 16, 2022.
Haselbeck, Sebastian. The Quentin Tarantino Archives. Accessed February 16, 2023.
Fictional Companies Wiki. “Heisler Beer.” Accessed February 17, 2023.
IGN. “Left Behind Twitter Feeds and Secret Web Sites.” IGN, 2015.
Independent Studio Services. “Graphics - ISS Props.” Independent Studio Services, March 22, 2022.
Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Pop Junctions, March 22, 2007.
Kiwi Talkz. “#133 - Erik Wolpaw Interview (Half Life:Alyx, Portal 2, Portal 3, Valve, Writing, Dialogue Etc.).” Video. YouTube, April 16, 2022.
Treccani. “Maccartismo.” Accessed January 22, 2023.
MeTV. “The Fascinating History of Morley Cigarettes, the Favorite Fake Brand of Hollywood.” Me-TV Network, 2016.
Muzellec, Laurent, Christopher Kanitz, and Theodore Lynn. “Fancy a Coffee with Friends in "Central Perk"?” International Journal of Advertising 32, no. 3 (January 2013): 399–417.
Muzellec, Laurent, Theodore Lynn, and Mary Lambkin. “Branding in Fictional and Virtual Environments.” European Journal of Marketing 46, no. 6 (May 25, 2012): 811–26.
TV Tropes. “Oceanic Airlines.” Accessed February 18, 2023.
Pentagram. “Ablixa for ‘Side Effects’ — Story.” Pentagram. Accessed February 24, 2023.
Petit, Zachary. “When Saul Bass Met Hitchcock.” PRINT Magazine, October 31, 2014.
Rath, Robert. “A History of the Evil Corporation: From Abstergo to Umbrella.” Fanbyte, September 29, 2016.
Sinclair, Brendan. “Why Doesn’t GTA Online Have More Brand Collaborations?” GamesIndustry.Biz, May 17, 2022.
Snyder, Chris. “Why the Same Fake Cigarettes Are Used in TV and Movies.” Insider, March 15, 2021.
Strunk, Roger. Speculative Identities. Accessed November 16, 2022.
Talks at Google. “USA’s Mr. Robot | Christian Slater & Sam Esmail | Talks at Google.” Video. YouTube, June 6, 2015.
The Portal Wiki. “Aperture Science.” Portal Wiki. Accessed February 27, 2023.
Vanity Fair. “Director Rian Johnson Breaks down a Scene from ‘Knives Out.’” Video. YouTube, February 25, 2020.
Vineyard, Jennifer. “Wes Anderson on The Grand Budapest Hotel, Reimagined Nazis, and His Sock Drawer.” Vulture, 2014.
Worch, Matthias, and Harvey Smith. “What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling.” 2010.
Zuckerman, Ariel. “Amazon Prime Video Homecoming.” Ariel zuckerman. Accessed November 16, 2022.