We Are Addicted to Stories

How many stories did you tell today? Think about that for a moment. I am not talking about the stories we tell ourselves because that is constant. Our head gets choked with rational and irrational sagas. I am talking just about the ones you tell. Did you share the tale of your commute with colleagues? Did you tell an anecdote from your high school days?

How many stories did you hear today? If you spoke with three people you probably heard upwards of twelve to fifteen stories. Little ones are seeded throughout our conversations. Big ones entertain and engage.

How many stories did you read today? Between newspapers, that novel you are working your way through, and even advertisements you will have read a ton of stories.

How many stories did you watch today? We live in an era of binge-watching. Movies are everywhere. We can load tv shows and movies on our devices and consume them anywhere. Most shows now have four or five subplots so there are plenty of narratives to follow.

John Gottschall author of The Storytelling Animal says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” Stories are the primary construct for human interaction. It is how we connect.

I have been practicing storytelling and narrative psychology for the past ten years. What has surprised me is we see narratives even where there are none. The storytelling format affords meaning to our lives. It is an engrained form of problem-solving. It helps us make sense of the world.

Humans have always been storytellers. We started with pictograms on cave walls then became masters of the oral tale before we took up the pen. Stories provide a way for humans to feel control over the world. They allow us to see patterns in chaos and meaning in randomness. They are sorting devices and educational vehicles for what has come before, what is happening now and what may take place.

Storytelling shows us how other people think. We compare and contrast when digesting stories. This may affirm our own beliefs and perceptions but more importantly they can throw them into question.

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How Blogging Has Influenced Writing

It is hard to comprehend that a new blog is created every 7.4 seconds. Nearly 3,000,000 posts are made public every day. Over 10,000 updates take place each hour. These statistics come from Technorati and prove that there is a hell of a lot of content in our world.

The Internet and social media democratized writing. Unfortunately, so much of it is poor. The content tends to be unoriginal, dumbed-down, misleading and misinformed. Other issues persist including the regurgitation of the same content and the writer lacking credibility. There seems to be a need to pump out more, for more’s sake, rather than providing real thought, real value.

These issues impact the profession of writing and the efficacy of blogging. For those with a formal education in writing the vast majority of blogs provoke cardiac arrest. The very basics of writing are missing; structure, spelling, tenses, storytelling, and grammar. Too many blogs fail to include a unique point-of-view and a motivating call-to-action.

It is fair to say that the very nature of blogs is sloppy. They are opinion pieces lacking interviews and research, they are short compared to articles and papers, the content is built around SEO keywords, the style is casual, and, as covered, good writing is optional. Every single blog post would benefit from proofreading and editing.

Writing is an art form. Blogging must correct the ‘quantity over quality’ mission it currently pursues. Here are ways to make that correction.

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The Perils and Pleasures of Public Speaking

“There are certain things in which mediocrity is not to be endured, such as poetry, music, painting, public speaking.” Jean de la Bruyere

This piece can be read below or download the nicely designed PDF and share around (PublicSpeaking).

I recently spoke at a client’s retreat and it marked the 125th time doing so. This does not include pitches and client presentations, guest lectures at schools, and media appearances. There has also been a large number of webinars, seminars, and panels. Along the way I have witnessed thousands of presentations representing the absolutely brilliant to the unbearably bad (I count some of my own in both camps).

Every conference provides old and new lessons in public speaking. Whether these events are valuable, necessary evils, boondoggles, idea stimulators, fiascos, ego-fests, networking opportunities, money grabs, or highly entertaining – one can take away something to apply when your turn to present comes up.

Given the experiences and observations accumulated, I have compiled ideas and lessons that work. In so doing, I avoid the obvious and well-stated ones. What follows should be extremely helpful when your turn at the podium comes up. Read more

Taglines…need to be all they can be

Read this piece below or download the nicely designed PDF (Taglines).

It is ironic that a short bit of writing used to concisely convey an idea is called different names. These communication devices go by slogan, catchphrase, motto or tagline. For the sake of this piece and my preference, I call them taglines. Slogans possess a cheap connotation, 8701catchphrases seem vacuous bits of pop culture, and a motto is actually a hard rule more than an idea or aspiration. You can also throw jingles amongst them as a type of slogan set to music. So tagline it is.

Taglines are battle cries and statements of benefit and intent. They exist to offer information in a succinct, appealing and creative way. Ideally they deliver a message that shapes opinion and changes behavior. Taglines, when combined with action, have spurned whole movements.

These tools have been around for centuries and were refined during political campaigns in the 1800’s. In the latter half of that century they began to be employed to create awareness for products and services. Ivory Soap’s 99 and 44/100ths percent pure was a pledge of quality to ivory_old_1954consumers. It floats was added in 1891 because competitive soaps did not float. Heinz’s “57 Varieties” came along, as well as, Nabisco’s clever Uneeda Biscuit that was both tagline and name all in one.

Memorable taglines have stated clear positions. There is American by Birth. Rebel by Choice. for Harley-Davidson, A Diamond is Forever for De Beers, and AVIS’ We Try Harder. Some engage by asking questions including Capital One’s What’s In Your Wallet? And UPS’ What Can Brown Do For You?

These lines tend to offer clear benefits like M&Ms Melts In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hand or the United States Postal Service We Deliver for You. Others include the name of the product or company to firmly plant them in our conscious or subconscious. Examples include Virginia Is For Lovers for Virginia Tourism and Like A Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There. Some appear www-VA4L-neg-verdefensive like Live in your world. Play in ours. for PlayStation.

Taglines have been historically a pithy short sentence or combination of words meant to live for several years if not decades. They have been locked up with a brand name and logo. That choice of words, “locked up”, is deliberate. This use of taglines is incredibly confining and tethered to antiquated marketing thinking that has lost relevance.

They should not always be carved in stone. While the idea of finding some all-encompassing nirvana statement that nails it and resonates for years is appealing, I believe the tagline can be doing so much more for a brand. In fact, I view them as mini campaigns that deserve far more freedom.

This epiphany came to me through a series of client rebranding engagements. A new brand or rebrand all demand fresh communications. When launching a rebrand I was repeatedly recommending a launch tagline that would live for a few months or upwards of a year. Then at the appropriate time it would be swapped for an attempt at a more timeless rendition. This meant avis-logoconcocting a handful or more for the client to evaluate. In every case this bundle of taglines had one or two that did not create a spark but the others were always enjoyed. So why cast them all away?

I advocate the use of different taglines at different times for different audiences. Branding is much more flexible and tailored these days. The heavy and thick guideline books that once dominated the practice no longer exist for a reason. A single tagline has diminishing value given the fluid and variable applications we use today. I often think that brand guidelines were less about consistency and more about command and control from the brand owner. They limited creativity in a monolithic manner.

There was also the fear of the cost of changing anything “locked up” in the guidelines. This I can understand. No business can change where a key brand element lives with frequency. Now in this time of digital, brands can afford and need to tailor their communications and that includes taglines.

Arguably HSBC has been doing this for years. Granted they go by The World’s Local Bank but all of their communications leverage the notion of tailored taglines used in combination. They employ, We see no problem in different points of view. Only potential. Then there is, The more you look at the world, the more you recognize people’s different values. and The more you look at the world, the more you recognize what really matters to people.

So though A Diamond is Forever a tagline does not have to be. Taglines need to ‘try harder’. Rather than use a tagline as a static statement or one battle cry, set loose a manageable army of them. Lead them and make them work together but act fast because soon every brand will be doing the same.

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Professional Services Marketing

How do you differentiate a law firm?

What makes an ad agency relevant?

How can you tell one accounting firm from another?

Can brand-building really help a consulting firm win more business?

Professional services take away problems and capture benefits. This is why they exist. This applies to law firms, consultancies, advertising agencies, architects, wealth management or private banking services, creative agencies, and accounting firms. If they do it right they are rewarded with long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.

Professional services are fascinating. Tom Peters, management consultant and author, has said, “The professional service firm – with its obsession with clients and projects – must be the new organization model.” Yet, professional services are tough businesses to brand because the promise is intangible and requires a leap-of-faith purchase.

Professional Service Essence

Whether it be a consulting, accounting, advertising or architecture firm, common characteristics apply. Each involves a specialty that demands highly talented people (who can be highly demanding). Most firms pursue deliver services that are repeatable and trainable to efficiently and effectively grow revenue. And though these services are offered to a variety of clients, they must be delivered in a customized way demanding high levels of face-to-face interaction.

The essence of professional services is that they prepare clients for the future, preempt the undesirable, control what can be controlled, and identify new opportunities.

Because of these commonalities, firms tend to share the same business model. They rely on  leverage in organizational design for profitability, structure and process, and career path strategies.

In terms of business development, they become hunter or farmer. Then they endlessly debate how best to go-to-market and usually arrive at an unnecessarily complex matrix involving a combination of service, geography, industry, and/or client segmentation. They bore the market because they are talking to themselves.

The vast majority of firms are too flexible when it comes to strategic positioning. They react to any new opportunity or chase any expression of interest from a prospect, making them quite willing to deviate from “strategy.” They are known to chase fads. Or they bluntly apply defined service offerings to a broad range of client business problems, epitomizing the maxim, “If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

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The Best in Narrative Psychology

When you meet someone for the first time or reconnect with an old friend or go to a dinner party what takes place? Think of any situation where you are interacting with others. We share an anecdote from our day at the dinner party. We tell that old friend about what has taken place with our family and career. We attempt to connect with someone new by conveying our experiences and interests. This does not mean listing or dating activities. In every instance we use storytelling to communicate, engage, and relate.

Storytelling helps us make sense of our lives and the world around us. They are an incredibly effective method of finding and sharing meaning and context. Mary Catherine Bateson, writer and cultural anthropologist, believes that, “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” We are hardwired for stories because we have been telling them for centuries.

Marketing and advertising practitioners continue to debate the application of storytelling in business. The most voracious advocates cannot see past the construct and even the hardiest critics employ storytelling. So why all this sharing of tales? Stories inspire and motivate. Stories make ideas stick. Stories persuade. Stories educate and entertain. That makes for good marketing.

A few years back at the Festival of Creativity in Cannes I had the pleasure of interviewing Arianna Huffington, Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, of The Huffington Post. It was also a challenge as her handlers held me to just three questions. She once said, “People think in stories, not statistics, and marketers need to be master storytellers.”

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Marketing’s Golden Rule

Recently, I was named one of the 50 Over 50 Marketing Thought Leaders by Brand Quarterly. Beyond enjoying the honor and sharing my age with the publication’s entire readership, I was stumped by a bit of the process. BQ asked me to provide my “marketing mantra” and how it makes better marketers. It seemed like an easy request at first glance.

Then I got it into and quickly discovered I subscribed to many. Perhaps too many. So I sorted through them to see if there was commonality. I also looked for something fresh but compelling and by no way contrived. In the end, I brand-quarterly1landed on the notion of the Marketing Golden Rule. It is a representation of what I have witnessed and experienced as both marketer and consumer. The Marketing Golden Rule speaks honestly to the relationship between buyer and seller.

What is Your Marketing Mantra?

Always ask, “How would I like to be marketed to?” I don’t want to be fooled. I am not looking for false promises. I do not want to be entertained for entertainment sake. I am seeking fit with a brand. This modified ‘golden rule’ keeps the focus on reciprocity. Marketing is a relationship, a two-way street, a process to achieve mutual benefit between people and brands. People expect marketing but do not want to be sold. They want to be valued, heard, and feel special. This makes the profession and practice a profoundly human activity.

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How does Following this Mantra Make Better Marketers?

Marketing facilitates sales by respecting and helping people make the best decisions concerning what, how, and when to buy what they need and want. David Ogilvy said, “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife.” He was imploring marketers to truly know who may buy what is being sold. This demands an understanding of an individual’s situation and personal motivations to provide an objective rationale and honest justification for every purchase.

Marketing is the study of human behavior and our behavior has not changed in centuries. It has been consistent from ancient open-air markets to modern online exchanges, from Pompeii to eBay. We are both rational and irrational, and we frequently confuse our needs with our wants.

This makes marketing an amazing profession. It is a mix of psychology, data science, pop culture, history, sociology, music, consumer behavior, design, neuroscience, writing and literature, mathematics and so much more. This complex cocktail does not set out to overtly sell, it strategically and creatively promises and proves.

Increasingly marketing is technology-led and data-driven. Marketers are overwhelmed by reams of information. Every brand I work with is inundated with data. It is not making them better at marketing. T.S. Eliot got it right, he asked, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Data is great if it produces human insights that incite. It sucks when a spreadsheet replaces intimate knowledge of a customer.

Marketing connects on a human level. Consumers expect brands to market to them. Equally so, they expect brands to empathize and understand them. Marketers that hide behind vague, lofty claims or attach inordinate emphasis to dispassionate technology or fail to prove their promises will facilitate few sales because in this there is no relevance, honesty, value or humanity.

Broadly speaking there are two types of people in marketing. There are those who like to fool people and there are those who like to serve people. It is time our profession cast off the old-school, jaded types who believe marketing is about creating myths and trying to snow people with them. We need to celebrate those who know it is about finding a truth that connects people and brands for mutual benefit. All of this starts by asking, “How would I like to be marketed to?”

Cheers, Jeff Swystun

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Trends in Association Branding

Years ago I spoke at a conference focused on crafting association business strategies. This was in the late nineties while in the Marketing and Customer Management Practice at PW (now PwC). My work to that point focused on professional service businesses and consumer products. To tell the truth I was filling in for a colleague who fell ill.

The presentation went well but it was the conversations following that stuck with me. In short, I was rocked by the complexities of the industry and the challenges faced by these entities. iacpconferencephoto1-520x346Associations have always been “up against it”. All share certain issues. After working with four associations in the past two years, we have discovered the following:

Cost Not a Benefit: in many cases, members join to maintain accreditation or there is a penalty for not keeping membership but not necessarily claimable upsides.

The “Nonprofit” Label: it suggests a softer culture, less talented employees than the private sector (but stronger than the public sector!), and lack of depth and sophistication in leadership, management and planning. Let me be clear…this is perception not reality.

Overlap: one only has to look at the marketing and advertising industry to see that an agency in the United States could belong to easily over twenty different associations. Imagine being a retailer or in healthcare and that number is many times higher. This makes it important for associations to differentiate. When you think about it associations are competing against every other association out there and be held to the standards of the best. Also note there are associations for every conceivable group in the world…there are even several associations for associations!

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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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An Ad Agency Tipping Point

Starting any business is a bold move. Not all survive and few truly thrive. Those that do face the challenges of managing growth and staying true to what made them successful in the first place. This is an interesting tension that I recently discovered in working with four advertising agencies.

These businesses had grown to 100 or more staff. Of course, that metric in, and of itself, is not an indicator of sustained success. The good news is the agency leaders know that. In fact, these leaders were concerned because interesting things happen when the payroll hits 100. Here are some issues that arise:

  • Agencies of 15 or 30 or even 75 employees possess a start-up or boutique feel. When you hit 100 this weirdly begins to dissipate.
  • You don’t know everyone any more. Small agencies talk of being saatchi-saatchi-office-funkt-1“family” where everyone has each other’s back. While a strong culture can keep this rolling as staff size grows, it cannot mitigate the realities of being larger. This is compounded when they open up other offices.
  • A bigger payroll and presence prompts new business pressures. This can mean chasing the wrong work to keep the machine humming.
  • Founders and principals move from client service oversight to functional roles. Marketing, people, service and product development and other areas need full-time leadership. This transition can be bumpy and skill-sets are stretched.
  • Specialisms and differentiators begin to lose their luster. You simply cannot make the same claims. Being “nimble”, as an example, gets called in to question.

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