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 Write Advice

God I love writing. Too bad the ‘Gods of Writing’ can be so demanding even cruel. That is why it is important to draw on the experiences of others. Take Ernest Hemingway who said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” There is both comfort and terror in that observation.

Enid Bagnold captured my own sentiments of writing, “Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”

Here are other quotes on writing that may cause you to slap your forehead and say to and for yourself, “That’s it!”

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” George Orwell

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” Stephen King

“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.” William Zinsser

“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.” John Updike

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” Samuel Johnson

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” Elmore Leonard

“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.” Larry L. King

“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.” Doris Lessing

“Style is to forget all styles.” Jules Renard

“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.” Lawrence Block

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.” Leigh Brackett

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” Stephen King

“Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood—you will either write or you will not—and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.” Jim Tully

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” Harper Lee

“Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through—originality.” Jack Kerouac

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” Ray Bradbury

“Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk—away from any open flames—to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.” George Singleton

“There is only one plot—things are not what they seem.” Jim Thompson

“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.” Andre Gide

“When I say work I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.” Margaret Laurence

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” Annie Dillard

 

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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A Collection of Business Storytelling Stories

We share a collection of business storytelling articles that offer value. These are both recent and go back a few years but all support the effectiveness of telling the right tale right.

Why Storytelling Will Be the Biggest Business Skill of the Next 5 Years (HubSpot)
“Those who tell the stories rule the world.”

The Irresistible Power of Storytelling (Harvard Business Review)
A Strategic Business Tool.

Why Companies Need More Novelists (Fast Company)
Leaders, take note (and MFA grads, take heart): acclaimed novelist Mohsin Hamid on the most quote-Tim-OBrien-storytelling-is-the-essential-human-activity-the-135637important tool you’re not using enough.

Product Narrative: How to Use Fiction to Get Your Story Straight (Inc. Magazine)
David Riemer of the Haas School of Business explains why story telling is so powerful.

The Inside Story (Psychology Today)
Success in the information age demands that we harness the hidden power of stories. Here’s what you need to know to tell a killer tale.

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Marketing is a Human Activity

Marketing-Jeff-Swystun

This originally appeared in WPP’s Sparksheet.

As bots become more and more prevalent, as brands take an aggressive approach to social media, and as everyone drowns in data, it’s worth remembering that successful marketing has always been about one thing only: a personal connection.

Every marketer is bombarded with overwhelming and conflicting information. Most companies (and marketers) can barely digest the data they produce let alone turn it into actionable insights and strategy. Add the utopian promise of Big Data and we have a real issue because the most sophisticated systems will never spit out a marketing roadmap. More importantly, we must never forget that marketing is an intensely human activity.

There are ever-increasing raft of studies, rankings and surveys that pelt the marketing community every day. In branding alone there are now 294 studies tracked on the website, Ranking the Brands. Most of these are celebratory lists pitting brands against each other on one dimension or another. And the tech industry is an expert at producing reports that skew towards ‘technology-as-savior’ conclusions. Add on consumer and market research studies and marketers are now buried in elephant-size data dumps.

I am a part of a team researching marketing studies for a prospective book. Our intent is to discover commonality and difference in content. One thing that we found immediately was the need to clearly understand the wants and needs of consumers. Everything else is blinding white noise. Marketers know this but get distracted by shiny new toys and theories promising better performance.

The practice and profession of marketing has never changed. It has always been predicated on human behavior. It exists to understand consumer’s motives and give them justification for making a purchase. Everything else either supports or erodes this fact.

The relationship between brand and consumer was pretty much a fair relationship until the Mad Men, mass communication era. That marked a point when brands took the appearance of control through the ubiquity of advertising. This went on for a few decades then the balance of power shifted back towards consumers…but was then interrupted by the advent of social media.

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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 Psychology and Business of Buffets

I remember in my youth in the 1970’s and 1980’s when the competing Ponderosa and Bonanza restaurants first offered salad bars. These were innovative buffets of the time. They had the now recognizable sneeze guards and offered a semi-healthy splash of food even if it was just iceberg lettuce and Thousand Island dressing.

That was probably to distract us from the wafer-thin tough steaks and watery sour cream clotted baked potatoes that were those chains’ signature meals. I always wondered why two competing restaurants mined an old television show for both their names.

Over 20 years ago, I visited The Royal Fork in my hometown of Winnipeg. It was the first full-time, all-the-time buffet restaurant in town. It was if I had become Henry VIII or Caligula. I could fill my plate(s) with a mix of fried chicken, mounds of meatballs and mashed potatoes, pounds of pork chops and pasta, tons of turkey, and well, it goes on. Carbs and meat were preferred to anything feigning itself to be better for you.

bigstock-people-group-catering-buffet-f-45983233

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Where Brands Compete: Small Gestures, Meaningful Flourishes

If you are a professional marketer or a savvy consumer, you will recognize these maxims:

  • A brand is the sum of your experiences
  • Everything you do defines your brand
  • A brand is a set of differentiating promises
  • A brand signals a set of expectations
  • What you promise must be delivered

So you get it. A brand is a system. The parts must work together consistently. This theory is based on human behavior. Brand theory is specifically built upon two things. You have a longstanding and fulfilling relationship with a brand because it represents who you are and there is trust.

Think of this in terms of a close human relationship. Our dearest friends have Brands-are-People-Featurebeen there when we needed them, offered sound advice, and supported and subtly steered our choices. They have done this over time and we have done the same for them. It is healthy, reciprocal and emotional.

Once again, none of this is too shocking. We know this intuitively and in theory but there is one thing we may not always recognize when it comes to relationships and to branding. We tend to remember the big events and experiences. That can be a friend who saw us through a breakup or a brand that outperformed our expectations. The big stuff always stands out.

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Stop Writing to Write Better

There are two terms writers detest. The first is, “writer’s block”. The second is. “The bar is closing.” In all seriousness, getting stuck is frustrating. Writing is a complex act. It is self-expression. Writing shares ideas and stories. Everyone has those in the head and heart. We may understand them but putting them down on paper so others do is an awesome challenge.

I believe in the power of persistence but when you get stuck, forcing writing does not always work. Determination is admirable but it often produces an inferior result. When this happens and it can imagehappen with alarming frequency, you have to step away.

Go for a hike, pick up an adult coloring book, wear out a treadmill – anything that will quiet your mind. If you stop focusing on the block often the solution will present itself. One perceived step backwards can take you two real steps forward.

Even if this does not produce an amazing epiphany that miraculously breaks the mental logjam, you will find a few threads that can be pulled. Those will invariably lead you in the right direction. The point is to walk away. You have to stop writing to write better. There are a few reasons why.

Breathe

It can be a blog, novel, annual report or poem. We pour ourselves into the words and ideas. The sentiment and emotion is draining. Just a few sentences in we have lost all objectivity. It is analogous to having a heated argument with a loved one. They have their point-of-view and we have ours. There is a natural give and take but we are not going to budge on the core bits. You have to take some time, breathe, and see it from the other side.

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Seagram’s Ads Predicted the Future

If only The Seagram Company could have seen the future they would avoid what Charles Bronfman called, “a disaster, it is a disaster, it will be a disaster…It was a family tragedy.” He was speaking of the demise of his family’s business founded in 1857. Before the company’s ill-fated forays into entertainment and its breakup of assets that were acquired 1979_seagrams_adby Pernod Ricard, Diageo and Coca-Cola, Seagram’s developed and owned nearly 250 drink brands and was the largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the world.

They were also one of the coolest holding companies of all time. The Seagram Building, the company’s American headquarters at 375 Park Avenue in New York City, was designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson. Seagram’s made Canadian whisky a must-have. Crown Royal, 7 Crown, 83 Canadian Whisky, Five Star Rye Whisky, and Seagram’s VO were seen as luxury liquors.

My dad drank Crown Royal exclusively. Open a particular closet in our home back then and you would have drowned in royal blue felt-like bags with a gold tasselled drawstring (later they would be purple). Crown Royal was sold in these keepsake sacs. Kids would keep marbles and other toys in them. Ladies used them for jewelry. My dad housed scores of golf balls in the plush bag.

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