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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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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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.

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Social Media is a Thief of Joy

“Comparison is a thief of joy.” So said Teddy Roosevelt. The man was always good for a quick, incisive quote. In this case he could have been referring to social media. The purpose of Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and other platforms have become much different from what was originally promised.

When social media appeared it was expected to deliver two different things. The first was to create democratic vehicles for the sharing of original, entertaining and valuable content. Sharing is definitely going on but most agree that the content is largely vacuous and self-serving and the few good bits are spread to the point of saturation and irritation.

The second promise was that social media would prompt earnest and real dialogue. That it would be a true exchange. That too has fallen short. It has 020b9886340eb444724410b78423d66e05176b29428ff0bf7ff58c16a2b3d69c_largebecome a broadcast tool where simplistic buttons are now the avatars for real conversation. A happy or sad icon is not a discussion or an accurate reflection of what we really feel and think. We are ‘clicking’ our way out of the work of communications and relationships.

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Brand Names are Illiterate

The last season of the comedy, Parks and Recreation, finished up in 2015 but was set in 2017. Much of the plot focused on a fictional business named Gryzzl that is a thinly veiled amalgam of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Gryzzl employees tout collapsible transparent tablets that can be used as a skateboard, use treadmill desks, and don’t really appear to work. Their tagline is, “It’s the cloud for the cloud.” and the hI773Ke-company mantra is, “Wouldn’t it be tight if everyone was chill to each other?”

People surf free Gryzzl Wi-Fi, communicate through Gryzzl’s social network, and Gryzzl drones deliver creepily personalized gifts. A youthful executive of the company says, “I hope you can see now there is nothing scary about Gryzzl. We just want to learn everything about everyone and track them everywhere they go and anticipate what they’re about to do.”

Satire aside, the reason I bring this up is because of the name, Gryzzl. It alone made me laugh when I saw it. The name captures the silliness in brand naming these days. Granted, it is extremely difficult to find an original name so for the sake of legal ownership and URLs, many companies are bastardizing spellings and meanings.

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The Best in Cause Marketing

Swystun Communications contributed to PRNews’ 7th edition of the CSR and Green Guidebook. Our paper, Changing People’s Behavior: 8 Best Practices in Cause Marketing, is included along with submissions from JetBlue and Time Warner Cable. We cover the efforts of Uber, LUSH, H&M and Gucci. You can purchase it here and here is an excerpt on Gucci’s “Chime for Change”…

Building on the survey results and interviews, we looked at a select number of campaigns cited as best practice examples. One we heard repeatedly was Gucci’s “Chime for Change”. Robert Triefus, Gucci’s Chief Marketing Officer describes the investment, ”Chime for Change aims to realize a world where girls and women have the safety and protection they need to 1. Gucci Chime Adthrive.”

It was launched at TED and backed by celebrity endorsements from Salma Hayek and Frida Giannini. It has since thrown a mega-concert headlined by Beyonce, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. Recently it hosted Chimehack 2, “a female hackathon to develop solutions for relevant challenges in today’s world.” Chime for Change has been lauded for directly engaging consumers using a crowd-funding platform called Catapult.

For all of this they get admirable press. Yet, outside of the fashion industry, precious few people have actually heard of it. Respondents noted that Chime for Change has fallen for two common traps in cause marketing. The first involves celebrity. Celebrities are often used as avatars for the cause and a quick way to raise awareness.

This presents a long-term disconnect as consumers may desire to be a celebrity but they cannot easily relate to them. It produces an artificial association with the cause. Second, the cause leverages big events that generate press releases but questionable results. Chime for Change is an amazing premise executed in a traditional way. One respondent said she would be surprised if 1 in 100 of Gucci’s own customers have heard of the program.

8. LUSH a little does a lot

Sonos: The Brand and the Business

This article originally appeared in Sparksheet.

CoverSonos

Still hungry after thirteen-years, Sonos focuses on innovation, originality and desirability. But in an increasingly connected world, the brand wants to go beyond background music to become the central nervous system of your house. Talk about subversive.

Earlier this year, Sonos contemporized the look of its brand with a new visual theme representing amplification. This was just another step in a long-term plan. Sonos has long been sought after as a purveyor of wireless speakers, but now the company is aggressively pursuing something much bigger. Sonos not only intends to disrupt the entire music business, it aims to be indispensable in how you run your home.

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Why Most Brand Launches Fail

This piece originally appeared in Brand Quarterly.

In the old days of branding, and I am talking of just ten to fifteen years ago, there began a very predictable playbook for launching a corporate brand or rebrand. It borrowed a great deal from traditional public relations. It called for some combination of a press release, an unveiling of a new logo at a largish and often garish event, a fresh website, and a mousepad for each employee. Not much has changed in the interim except the mousepads have been replaced with coffee mugs or USBs.

Make no mistake, a brand or a rebrand is a deep, invasive and jarring intervention in the life of a business Needless to say, this is all very vacuous, fleeting, often expensive, and delivers limited real results. Make no mistake, a brand or a rebrand is a deep, invasive and jarring intervention inWhy-Most-Brand-Launches-Fail-Q1-1 the life of a business. If a company discovers it needs branding, I equate that to a serious call for help. Yet, most continue to launch brands in the most predictable and pedantic ways. It is analogous to conducting complicated surgery and then immediately throwing the patient onto the street. Here are the reasons why the approach is wrong:

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Marketing’s New Myopia

The marketing and advertising world is full of lore. These stories often take on a life on their own and grow with each telling. Many revolve around famous campaigns. DDB’s 1960’s ad, “Daisy”, has been given credit for helping Lyndon B. Johnson defeat Barry Goldwater. It also landed Maxwell Dane, a partner in the agency, on Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List”. This political ad, like the “I Love New York” cam paign have many claiming outright authorship or at least participation i-love-ny-t-shirt-whiteon the team.

New York’s iconic tag line is often attributed to Milton Glaser who is said to have creatively borrowed and built upon the idea from a Montreal radio station. It turns out that CJAD Montreal’s campaign titled “Montreal, the city with a heart” was of great influence and represented the creative spark. Mary Wells of Wells Rich Greene also lays claim in her book to this forty year old, highly successful bit of place branding.

Absolut Vodka made a fairly indistinct bottle one of the most recognizable in the world. The original campaign, which featured print ads showing bottles “in the wild,” was so successful that they continuted for 25 years. It is the longest uninterrupted ad campaign in history and comprises over 1,500 separate ads. When the campaign started, Absolut absolut-vodka-absolut-peak-1207had 2.5% of the vodka market. When it officially ended in the late 2000s, Absolut supplied half of all imported vodka in America.

A few years back while working at Interbrand I heard a grand story about Peter Arnell of the Arnell Group. Both businesses were part of Omnicom. Peter was a noted character and larger than life. In fact, he was quite large in stature and took it upon himself later to lose a significant amount of weight. He was also known to be an exceedingly tough boss but most agree he possesses a brilliance for positioning products and services.

This particular story involved a prospective pet food client who was bemoaning the lack of growth in their industry. They presented Peter with undeniable evidence that pet food was a stagnant market. They could at best hope to steal a couple of points from aggressive competitors. Peter’s eyes may have glazed over looking at the pie charts and bar graphs. At this point, he is said to have made a dramatic pronouncement along the lines of, “I know how to double your market and revenue.” Read more