Narrative Psychology in Brand Storytelling

Let me tell you a story. It’s a bit about our past. A bit about our future but more importantly, it concerns what is happening right now. It is also a story that nears 2,500 words because our complex world cannot be dumbed downed, reduced to a vague tagline, summed in a 140 character tweet, or captured in an oversimplified to-do list. True learning and understanding requires time and effort so heat the kettle or uncork a bottle and enjoy.

Marketing and advertising agencies claim to be professional storytellers. Methodologies at agencies deliver a brand story as part of engagements. Creative briefs bring the story to life. Agencies pump out papers on the subject and profile case studies where the story is key to client success. Within the industry, marketing conferences make room for storytelling as part of the agenda. Media and publications write on the topic with frequency. Storytelling permeates the profession.

Still, storytelling is constantly critiqued. It is viewed broadly as integral, over-used, irrelevant, or even dead. Storytelling is constantly evolving in interesting ways. Here are three changes taking place in business storytelling:

They Don’t Tell: by its very definition, storytelling is broadcast in nature. We tell a tale. It is ‘one-to-many’ like the Mad Men era of advertising. We know that no longer works. Stories must now invite consumers in and let them be both character and storyteller. It is now about storyparticipation not passive absorption.

They Are Organic: the best brand stories take root organically and get consumers involved. Then they really evolve. This scares traditional marketers. They fear ceding control. Still they control context and that is critical. Context provides the story’s framework. Granted it is a bit of a wild ride when consumers help build the story but this is what is taking place with Uber and Airbnb and has taken place with Apple and Red Bull.

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Every Agency Needs to Obsess About Loyalty

The company, Access Development, tracked and recorded, and recently shared every publicly available piece of data available concerning customer engagement and loyalty. They call it the Ultimate Collection of Loyalty Statistics. These data points, insights and themes are interesting unto themselves but add up to one big fat fact they did not note…any marketing business is in the business of loyalty.

I mean advertising agencies, marketing consultancies, public relations firms, market research bureaus, digital agencies, performance marketing shops, telemarketers, brand consultancies, social media marketers, media buying services, promotional material providers, influencer and celebrity marketing 200464106-001advisors…well, you get the idea. Any agency, firm or service that is in the business of marketing exists for one purpose. Of course, this includes those prescient to be specifically in the business of loyalty marketing.

The past, present and future of marketing has and will always hinge on loyalty. No company wants a one-time customer. Even businesses selling bomb shelters in the 1950’s wanted a client’s second home or to upgrade the first. Apple wants to sell customers a new cellphone every time there is a new release or every 22 months which is the smartphone adoption average.

Agencies and consultancies continue to talk about brand positioning, awareness, consideration and trial. Important stuff for sure but only the start. All efforts and spend should have loyalty as the end goal. Anything else is a dodge, a feint, a run from the real focus and fight.

Not one single advertising agency, brand consultancy, PR firm, media buyer is really talking about loyalty.

I see not one single advertising agency, brand consultancy, PR firm, media buyer talking about loyalty. This leads to churn, inefficiency, ineffectiveness and the regurgitation of the same ideas whose only result is a client’s frustration and dissatisfaction…and poor results.

Why spend money on branding and advertising if not to have repeat customers?

Let me say it again, no company wants a one-time customer. That is why marketing’s purpose is loyalty. You only need to give a cursory examination of Access Development’s aggregation to arrive at the same conclusion. We thank them for the following…and for also proving loyalty programs are a tactic not a strategy.

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What’s Happening in Brand Storytelling?

Storytelling has its sceptics and detractors in the business world. I fear the word and practice is both being overused and misapplied much like “business design” and “branding”. The only way to conclude its effectiveness is to give it a try. That starts with understanding by reading the latest thinking on the subject.

Moving From Fiction to Non-Fiction
Many brand and product stories “are just pretty commercials made to wear beat up sweatpants to try to boost authenticity and believability”. Jay Baer recently admonished such efforts saying, “Storytelling has to shift from an emphasis on the story to an emphasis on the truth.” He goes as far to suggest that this “will be the big content and social story in 2017.”

The Resurgence Of Storytelling
Devishobha Ramanan writing in The Huffington Post suggests that oral storytelling is needed in company leadership. Her introduction is an eloquent example of storytelling, “Stories are powerful. imageThey can teach us to be moral or immoral. They can help us cut through a situation analytically. They make us cry for someone else we didn’t know. They make us happy for someone we only wished we had met.” She calls for business leaders to draw on ancient practices. India’s Harikatha is an oral storytelling tradition with a primary storyteller and two other storytellers in support. China’s Shuosh and Japan’s Rakugo are other examples whose use can motivate and educate audiences.

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The Real Reason Clients Hire You

I have spent my career in professional services. From Price Waterhouse to Interbrand to DDB to now running my own agency. Over that time I have become an expert in branding and marketing professional services. At least that is what peers and clients say. To make that claim myself is analogous to me telling you that “I’m cool” or “I’m funny” or “I’m smart”. The credibility is in others saying it. Having others speak well of you is the goal of branding.

This specialty allows me to work with law firms, management and marketing consultancies, advertising and digital agencies, and accounting firms. An engagement with an investment management firm led to an insight about how and why clients truly decide on one professional over another.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-8-58-40-pmFor a long period we assumed that clients first and foremost chose expertise. This assumption led ad agencies to talk about themselves way too much, law firms to numb clients with superior high-minded jargon, and management consultancies to dazzle with mysterious black boxes of proprietary processes. To their credit many professionals identified this as a problem but mistakenly identified the solution. They chose to switch emphasis and focus on the prospective client’s situation.

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What Ungava Gin Has To Do Now

I first tried Ungava gin about three years ago. We live in Mont Tremblant, Quebec and the local Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) was showcasing this home province concoction. To tell the truth, the color of the product was a tad off putting. Rarely do you see a gin that resembles a substantial urine sample. According to the company website, “six rare botanicals give Ungava Canadian ungava-bottlePremium Gin its particular aroma and colouring.” Suffice it to say, it is yellow.

I am a vodka man but love a G&T in the summer. Vodkas are largely undifferentiated to me in taste. Perhaps I have burnt out my taste buds but I cannot really distinguish between a Stoli, Grey Goose or Absolut. Yet, when it comes to gins, I taste the difference.

In the case of Ungava gin, it is distinct. It is both rich and smooth. The marketing speak about rare botanicals has truth to it. There is a pleasing complexity in the mixture. The site claims, “an original recipe is produced in a traditional way: Nordic juniper, wild rose hips, cloudberry, crowberry, arctic blend and Labrador tea are naturally steeped until the gin takes on its complex flavour and distinctive sunny hue.” Sunny hue is a much kinder description than urine.

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Remember When Marketing was About Selling?

Checkout these thought posters and share them widely. They address brand storytelling, the loss of meaning in branding, the need for real results, and how marketing must get back to selling.

1Complexity

2Brand

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Social Media Officially Failed on February 7, 2009

I often joke with clients and audiences at conferences that social media officially failed on February 7, 2009. It is a completely arbitrary date. My point is, around that time it became clear that the promise of social media would go unrealized. That promise being that social media would be premised on conversation.

Instead what happened is brands and their agencies feared lack of control over dialogue. Ceding that control to customers was a scary idea. So they reacted by using social media as just another broadcast tool. They fell back on their comfort zone as in television, print and radio. Years later this persists.

This is not to say brands are shying away from social media. In fact, Forrester predicts $16 billion in spend in social media by US marketers alone in 2016. Lithium, the owner of Klout, that tracks social media influence, commissioned independent research firm ComBlu to take a look at social media. According to their site, “Combining hard numbers with human analysis, the State of Social looks at eight industries and 85 Fortune 1000 companies to determine how strategic and effective brands are across their social ecosystems.”

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Before we get to the insights it is important to state that though I am on Klout, I am not sure of its ultimate value. An aggregate score based on my social media activity has not caused me to alter anything when it comes to social media. And it is clear this report has an agenda and that is to further advance the idea that influencer marketing is valid and works. Social media was always intended to be an egalitarian grassroots tool. Obviously some will attract more followers than others but that should be based on their value and relevance rather than by a campaign using brand dollars.

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Why Marketing and Marketers Love Fads

Mark-Zuckerberg-ice-bucket-challenge

Fads are fascinating. They pop-up, wildly peak, and rapidly become a memory. Fads are defined as, “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze.” Marketing has historically loved a craze because it enjoys significant awareness.

Social media has helped fuel fads and arguably shorten their shelf life. Fads are similar to habits or customs but less durable. They often result from an activity or behavior being perceived as emotionally popular or exciting within a peer group or being deemed “cool”.

Dance marathoners hoping for a sponsor's prize.

Dance marathoners hoping for a sponsor’s prize.

Nowadays they are promoted across social networks growing trial and converts to the fad. Think about the Ice Bucket Challenge and you will get the drift.

This ties to the bandwagon effect. This is a phenomenon where the rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, fads and trends increases the more that they have already been adopted by others. Marketers love the notion of fads and bandwagons as they resemble interactive advertising campaigns. Marketers strive to create fresh fads and compel the bandwagon effect or they associate their brand with a fad currently underway to gain a halo effect.

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Your Brand Story is Your Brand Strategy

So much has been written on storytelling in business that a subset of the marketing community is pushing back against its purported benefits. Yet, increasingly creative agencies big and small are specializing in helping clients better tell their story. More and more conferences are dedicated to the topic. Content marketing and copywriting professionals now fall under the umbrella of storytelling.

All of this activity is taking place with the hope that customers will identify with the story, tell it, and share it. This sounds a lot like the overall purpose of branding and IMG_4556marketing and that makes me a believer in the power of storytelling.

When it works, it really works. I am not a fan of overly simplistic stabs at business storytelling. Those attempts rob brands and businesses of what makes them interesting in the first place, namely, their depth and complexity. This does not mean everything should be “War and Peace” but it certainly should not be dumbed down to a tagline or strive for a one-word association.

I use two different constructs to help build an engaging narrative. The first answers seven questions and generally works better for B2B, professional services, and association clients. These require honest and uncomfortable answers to be successful.

  • Where do we come from?
  • Where is our world going?
  • Who are our communities?
  • What are we like?
  • How do we behave?
  • What is our purpose?
  • What is our brand idea?

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Ad Agencies Confuse Public Relations with Branding

Perhaps we can lay blame on the Creative Revolution in advertising from the early 1960s. That era of broadcast communications produced, on a relative basis, the largest volume of advertising we have ever seen. It is viewed as the pinnacle of Madison Avenue’s influence. At the same time, the public relations profession was having its own golden days. The masters of spin were as sought after as the martini-soaked mad men (apologies for reinforcing the stereotype).

Soon competition among ad agencies grew in the late 1960s and the phone stopped ringing. Work dried up so agencies turned to their public relations cousins for help. From the mid ‘60s on, this meant pumping out press releases and cultivating media to cover agency activities. Most of this trumpeted new business wins and awards gained at the ever-increasing number of shows. This contributed no real or meaningful differentiation especially given all agencies followed the same playbook. The biggest innovation agencies introduced in subsequent decades was hiring public relations professionals to work in-house.

TheOffice

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