Evidently Storytelling Works

Yesterday I passed an advertisement in Toronto’s underground PATH walkway in the downtown. Well, I probably passed scores without noticing. Oversized posters, television screens, storefronts, employees offering samples, consumers with purchases in bags with retailers logos. These were just a few examples of marketing on a relatively short walk to an ATM at my bank that flashed an ad during my transaction.

Anyway, back to that big poster that stopped me. It was nothing special. A bunch of text on white background. At the top it had a statistic, we make 35,000 decisions every day. That’s what gave me pause. People had to move around me as I read the entire ad. It was for a private health clinic and overall was very poor. The clinic needs to tell a more visual story and the ad’s placement sucked.

That is not why I share this story.

I thought about that stat for the rest of the day. It made me recall another. We have 65,000 thoughts every day. That adds up to 100,000 intentions in our head or close to 4,200 every hour and 70 every minute. No wonder we are all stressed, drink and cannot wait for marijuana stores to open.

Those of us in the communication business know we are exposed to over 5,000 ads every day. I deliberately chose the word, “exposed”. We don’t actually see them. We have become inured. Just as I was on my walk until something compelled me to stop. And that is the crux of marketing today.

In a world full of communications inhabited by people with busy lives and minds … how can brands meaningfully connect? The answer is as old as mankind. Storytelling. It has been, is, and will continue to be, the great connector.

Here is an assemblage of evidence proving the power and impact of storytelling.

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Buy Now, Rationalize Later

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star.

Buy now, rationalize later.

Advertisers are growing ever more sophisticated at understanding how emotions lead to sales. Some politicians have picked up on the lessons.

Toronto marketing expert Jeff Swystun gets philosophical when he talks about the advertising game.

“Plato wrote (that) ‘human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge’,” he says.

“Marketing works when it makes us feel something. From a psychological perspective, when we feel strongly about something, we are pushed to action,” explains the president of Swystun Communications, who has worked more than 20 years in branding and advertising at several agencies.

Of course emotion has been used in advertising for decades, from Heinz ketchup’s classic “Anticipation” commercial and Mikey liking Life Cereal to Coca-Cola teaching the world to sing with hippies on a hill.

And today companies are even more sophisticated in their approaches to emotional advertising, informed by a deeper understanding of decision making and techniques to ingrain brands into our psyches.

Perhaps the biggest brand these days — Donald Trump — has shown the importance of appealing to customers’ emotions and self-image.

In his business career, Trump was a master of marketing, and these lessons served him well in his campaign to become U.S. president. Even amid the Russia scandals, White House staff turmoil and a stream of official lies and obfuscations, he’s maintained his fervent base of support.

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Consumer Misbehaviour

An episode of the U.S. version of the television comedy, The Office, involves a Halloween costume contest at the paper supplier Dunder Mifflin. The top prize is a discount book offering coupons from local businesses. The retail cost of the book is $40.00 that offers $15,000 in savings if all coupons are redeemed. One character on the show, Oscar Martinez, is an accountant who takes exception to the irrational exuberance of his colleagues towards this prize.

The employees throw themselves into the contest. They produce topical and highly detailed costumes to best each other. The competition dominates the workday. Oscar’s frustration grows to the point where he challenges their thinking, “Everyone realizes this coupon book is not actually worth $15,000 right? You would have to spend $200,000 on crap you don’t need to get $15,000 of benefits. I am not the only one who sees this, right?”

Apparently, he is.

The employees escalate the competition by upgrading their costumes and strategizing how best to present them. Oscar tries one last time to educate his colleagues on the economics and their behavior. They aggressively rebut or outright disregard his argument.

To them, the coupon book represents $15,000 in real value. Oscar chooses to confront this irrationality head on. He switches from a colorful disco themed dance outfit to a very staid and generic ensemble worn by an everyman. Oscar explains to his colleagues using air quotes that he is now a “rational consumer”.

The contest commences with the participants showing off extremely elaborate creations including a samurai, Lady Gaga, a mummy, film director Michael Moore and a sexy nurse. Each employee casts a vote for the winning costume and to everyone’s surprise Oscar wins but the victory is greeted with little enthusiasm. The show cleverly reveals that the reasons why people voted for Oscar were as irrational as their view of the prize.

Given our confusing behaviors, it should come as no surprise that the earliest writers in marketing were psychologists. Understanding why people do what they do is at the heart of marketing. Yet, marketers constantly struggle to better their performance.

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The Advertising Industry: What’s Next

What do you think of when you hear, “the advertising industry”? Is it the embellished glamour of the Mad Men era or do you see logos and hear jingles. More abstractly, you may imagine a long assembly line spitting out ever more advertisements adding to the communication clutter in our lives.

One of the most prescient thinkers on media and marketing was Professor Marshall McLuhan. It is argued he predicted the rise of the Internet and the advent of social media decades in advance. McLuhan was the fellow who said, “The media is the message.” I was amazed to learn on a visit to Facebook headquarters that the professor’s books are required reading for staff.

One of his lessor known quotes is a doozy, “All advertising advertises advertising.” You could spend a lengthy dinner party unpacking the meaning and intent of those words. The quote caustically equates ubiquity with effectiveness while suggesting that the industry that produces ads is a self-perpetuating machine.

So where is that machine headed? What is the future of the ad industry?

Read the paper (SC_WhatsNext.March18) or listen to Jeff’s presentation on Hubspot’s Agency Expert Webinar series. Cheers!

We Compare to the Top Brands

Have you noticed the same handful of businesses lead every brand ranking, are mentioned repeatedly at conferences, and are consistently referenced in books and articles? One cannot escape testimonials to Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Harley-Davidson, and Disney. It is if there are only a handful of successful brands on the planet.

Now it seems consumers believe that to be true. Wunderman and Penn Schoen Berland surveyed 2,000 people aged 18 to 65 in the US and the UK, and the findings were consistent across generations, geography and gender. Here is an amazing finding: 87% of US and 85% of UK consumers compare all brand experiences to those they consider the best, such as Netflix, Amazon and Starbucks.

That means when we pick up our dry cleaning, rent a bicycle, or buy a shirt we are judging the experience as compared to ordering a venti cappuccino from Starbucks or streaming Better Call Saul.

After working with tons of brands and consulting to agencies who work with an exponential number of brands I am confident I know what consumers truly want from brands. They demand a solution. A solution that makes their lives easier and more enjoyable. Netflix, Amazon and Starbucks do that.

All that other brand stuff involving authenticity, consistency, and transparency are in the next consideration set. Those considerations are important for sure but when you boil it down consumers consume. Sure, some vote with their wallets if a brand does bad or badly but we buy to satisfy our very selfish needs and wants.

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Marketing Lessons from British Bands

The force that was the British Invasion had never been experienced before nor has there been anything like it since. It has been examined for its musical influence which was considerable. What has not been covered is the role marketing played.

There is much to learn from how these bands deliberately and accidentally built their brands. So join us for this magical marketing tour.

Brand Invasion

Marketing Lessons from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and the Animals

In 1965, The Rolling Stones released (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. According to Keith Richards he started the song on March 6th of that year (which happens to be the day I was born). The band was on tour in America at the time. “I’d woken up in the middle of the night, thought of the riff, and put it straight down on a cassette. In the morning, I still thought it sounded pretty good. I played it to Mick and said, ‘The words that go with this are: ‘I can’t get no satisfaction.’ That was RS1just a working title. … I never thought it was anything like commercial enough to be a single.”

The song attracted attention for its implied, risqué content but I always enjoyed the knocks it made against the media, advertising, consumer culture, and materialism. In the lyrics, the radio broadcasts “more and more about some useless information” while television advertisements tease with personal improvement and brand status: “how white my shirts can be – but he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.”

With great irony this stand against materialism launched the Rolling Stones and grew their collective bank account. Along with the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, and the Animals, they produced timeless songs that continue to attract and keep fans. Make no mistake, these bands are brands and music is their product. If you think they did what they did solely for artistic or altruistic reasons you are wrong.

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Hiring the Right CMO

It has been called the most dangerous title in business and many pundits have suggested it does not work and should be banished. No role in the last fifteen years has been scrutinized and debated more than the Chief Marketing Officer. Businesses have struggled with the title and role since it was first coined not too long ago.

I remember working in Price Waterhouse’s Marketing and Customer Management practice when I first saw it referenced in the mid 1990’s. I think I danced a nerdy marketing jig. My excitement was shared by marketing practitioners who long thought our services were poorly understood, inaccurately recognized, and under valued.

The hope was this executive position would set the record straight and have uber impact within a business. What happened and continues to take place are huge assumptions and unrealistic expectations placed on the CMO that almost always result in disappointment. Of course, I have seen situations and models work but I have witnessed many more fail.

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10 Communications Challenges

Communications holds the power to change minds, prompt action and move the world. But it has to get better. It has to strive to be the best. In business communications, we have identified ten challenges that are standing in the way of it being better. These come from the breadth and depth of our work with leading brands and brands that want to lead.

Challenge #1

Everyone is talking about disruptions and innovation yet communications are predictable, safe and boring. Are you satisfied with being a me-too brand? Communications that are compelling and different are in short supply. Effort and spend are going up in smoke. Too few brands are bold.

Challenge #2

Communicators are attracted to shiny new toys and forget the fundamentals. Are you overcomplicating while missing the tried and true? Social media, V/R, video, SEO, programmatic – these are important tactics but they are that, tactics. What is missing is smart, sharp and penetrating strategies.

Challenge #3

Businesses think impersonally in terms of “audiences” and “targets” and “markets”. Do you really know who wants and needs what you have? The science and art of segmentation is a terrible state these days. The business schools teach it poorly and businesses employ it haphazardly. This leaves very real customers thinking you do not know them or care to.

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Dissecting FT Weekend’s New Branding

Two months ago The Financial Times refreshed FT Weekend. This was introduced through an integrated marketing campaign “aimed at a growing readership who favour the immersive experience of print on the weekend while remaining highly engaged with digital journalism during the week.” That is an insightful and challenging objective.

What piqued my interest was the print component. The campaign’s tagline grabbed me (isn’t it great when that happens?). The three lines are compelling. “World-class writing” is sharp and smart. I can see how they arrived at it and am grateful they did. The cornerstone of journalism is a free press. That means possessing honesty and objectivity and marrying them with insight. Those are lofty ideals to sell a paper. Perhaps too lofty and I expect FT and their advertising agency thought so too.

Instead they now focus on global reach and fresh perspective along with how they write and communicate. The three words in the tagline are absolutely power-packed. The line represents the core skill-set of journalism and what must be the overriding differentiator of any publication online, off or both. That is quality of writing. As far as I know no other publication is landing on that notion or boldly claiming it even though it is fundamental.

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Law Firm Marketing

The marketing of professional services firms is tough stuff. Whether it is accounting, advertising, architecture, or consulting firms, you name it, there is tons of competition and finding a unique position for the business is elusive. How about law firms? There are over 50,000 law firms in the United States with two or more lawyers, 173,000 solo practitioners, and 1,315,561 licensed attorneys. That is a big category folks.

A category that has historically and currently wrestles with the very idea of marketing. I am not talking about those tacky accident lawyer ads on TV or the calls for people to join class-action lawsuits that remind us of a John Grisham novel. Nor I am not talking about firms who think a logo and a website is all the marketing they need or those that buy ad space on a few city benches and wait for the phone to ring.

This hopefully helpful bit of writing applies to firms of size who would much rather focus on the practice of law rather than the perceived hell and distraction of marketing. Having worked with over 12 law firms on branding and marketing, I have noted a handful of challenges that are universal.

Marketing is a Dirty Word

This is a profession that was once not allowed to market. It was, in a word, illegal. I always thought that was cool. An industry forced to function on referral only. The concept was … do great work and more will come. Legal services was the purist form of business natural selection ever. All law firms had to use was a three person name (Smith, Jones & Smith), state they had been around for decades (Since 1933), and support the local community (Member of the Chamber of Commerce and The Elks). And, for a time, it worked.

Of course, times changed. When marketing became fair game, law firms put a partner in charge of promoting the firm. This was a short-term experiment because the partner knew nothing about marketing. Around the turn of this century, firms hired professional marketers from consumer product companies. I loved witnessing this epic failure. Cola and soup marketing do not translate well to legal services.

The last ten years has seen law firms flirt with every manner of marketing. Some experiments have worked but the vast majority has not. Marketing is still being grafted on law firms and that is the problem. Grafting is not enough. Marketing must be a core skill.

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