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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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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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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Chief Marketing Officer Turnover Persists

Spencer Stuart, a global executive search and leadership consulting firm, first brought attention to the short tenure of Chief Marketing Officers. In 2004, they reported that CMO’s lasted less than two years (that number now is now four years). Spencer Stuart’s work prompted McKinsey, Bain, and other consultancies to examine the role in papers and articles. All this analysis could be Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 9.29.27 AMboiled down to two primary reasons for short tenure: too-high expectations and poor cultural fit.

There was a fad-like quality to the early rounds of hiring CMOs. It was like CEOs looked around and said, “Hey get me one of those!” I recently interviewed Chris Hummel, CMO at United Rentals, for my upcoming book, Needs and Wants: The Universal Truths of Marketing. Chris has been CMO at Unify and Schneider Electric prior to his current position. He believes the hiring company often defines the position too broadly or may not know what they really need so it is critical to be specific in what the role is to deliver while ensuring solid chemistry with the company and fellow executives.

Executive Search consultants, Russell Reynolds, recently added to the discussion with their own report on marketing executive turnover. You can access the PDF here: RRA Marketing Moves Q1-Q2 2016 or read it below. You will find that being a marketing leader is not for the feint of heart.

MARKETING MOVES
To better understand current trends in the appointment and turnover of marketing officers, Russell Reynolds Associates tracked and analyzed 175 notable, publicly disclosed marketing-leadership moves in the first two quarters of 2016.

Key Findings

Record turnover. So far, 2016 has witnessed the highest level of marketing-leader appointments and turnover since Russell Reynolds Associates began comprehensively tracking all major appointments four years ago. In the first six months of this year, we recorded 175 marketing-leader appointments, compared to 147 in the prior six months and 134 in the same period of last year.

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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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Agency CEOs Are Chief People Officers

I recently had lunch with an agency CEO. It was revealing because the content was raw and real. In short, he lamented the lack of hours in the day to deal with everything on his plate. There was little I could recommend short of cloning and ruthless prioritization.

If you are an agency CEO or if you marvel at the responsibility they take on, then you know that it is overwhelming. CEOs have to be a master of the balance sheet, superior in business development, aware of technological developments, substantive in interaction with clients, Biz Mensavvy in the press, excellent public speakers, tireless in the pursuit of growth and profit, and role models for the agency’s brand.
And all of this depends on people. Any variable in performance is due to the collective talent of the agency. What this proves is that the CEO is as much the Chief People Officer as anything. Every industry and business can claim, “Ours is a people business” or “Talent is our greatest asset” and that would be fair, but it is especially accurate and evidenced in the agency world. The loss of a key person can sink an entire office. The right person leading the right team can propel an entire agency to dazzling new heights.

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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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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