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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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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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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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

Warby Parker: The Brand and the Business

This originally appeared in Sparksheet.

Jeff Swystun looks at how Warby Parker is disrupting the eyewear industry by blending online and in-store commerce, even while the company struggles to profit.

Brands can become verb-worthy. In my father’s day it was the Cadillac, a car synonymous with luxury and status. If you had a Caddy you’d arrived.

Today, brand-verbs have taken on extended meaning. Start-ups and businesses seek to emulate certain brands: companies aim start the UBERization of their industry. We also hear that whole industries are being “Warby Parkered.” This is funny given Warby Parker was once called “the Warby-Parker-Eyewear-LogoNetflix of Eyewear” in GQ.

The affordable, hipster-chic eyewear company has risen fast but is yet to make much money. In an April 30th article in The Wall Street Journal, Warby Parker admitted it was not profitable. Dave Gilboa, co-founder and co-chief executive, did not share revenue performance but claimed annual sales were picking up.

The Category

Warby Parker founders set their sights on an industry with bloated costs and one dominated by just a few sleepy players. The business model cut out the middleman to work directly with manufacturing. The designer eyewear was then sold online to cut retail costs.

All of this was wrapped in a strong brand predicated on being hip and fresh that delivered superior quality and customer service. Warby Parker felt that by greatly improving the buying experience they would make traditional competitors irrelevant. This approach has rocked the complacent category.

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Storytelling is Problem-Solving

“Storytelling is not what I do for a living – it is how I do all that I do while I am living.”

Donald Davis, Storyteller and Author

Life throws at us a never-ending stream of challenges and opportunities. Much of our success and happiness depends on how we greet them. This is illustrated in a quote from Ashleigh Bright, “I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.” Or this one from Howard Norberg, “Life is a cement trampoline.” Both are clever but as Voltaire once said, “A witty saying proves nothing.” There is also the fact that how we view and address life matters most.

Our lives are incredibly complex and require life-long, daily problem-solving. Stories help us because they document prior experience and future potential. By reading or hearing the stories of others, we find the strength and insight to help address our own problems and pursue new opportunities. This has never been home-in-line-image-3more true than in our times. Maarten Schäfer noted the reason why, “In this time of ‘information overload’, people do not need more information. They want a story they can relate to.”

Great stories are unquestionably most valuable when they lead us to real decisions. Stories help us make sense of who we are and the world in which we live. They propel and aid us through life. They do so much for us.

Stories help us find a mate, become craftsmen, spurn adventure, convince us of a point-of-view, and challenge us to connect through empathy. They are a basic, yet rich, building block of human interaction and societal construction. And they are incredible problem-solvers.

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