Building Brands by Telling Stories

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In the past few years, advocates of corporate storytelling have been inching this very effective marketing tactic onto the management menu. Right now it’s a special order; soon it may be on the soup-of-the-day rotation. It should be an everyday item. John Simmons’ new book The Invisible Grail: In Search of the True Language of Brands (Texere, 2003) will ensure the concept progresses toward its rightful place.

Simmons suggests most organizations don’t have all their assets working because they see words “as dummy text,” not as a creative resource; they consistently deny time and space to words out of the belief they’re plain and unexciting. If an organization doesn’t want to be seen as being like everyone else, he wonders, why do they neglect the potential of language to creatively demonstrate its unique personality?

Storytelling and creative business writing are not marginal activities – although they’re treated that way and they should be at the center of organizational strategy.

Organizations must bring their capability for expressing identity in verbal terms in-line with more traditional practices of expressing identity visually. After all, it is words that truly engage a person’s imagination and helps them understand what the brand stands for. Theatre in ancient Greece, for example, was a civic event where plays fostered community. The retelling of familiar stories created central myths that defined what it meant to be an Athenian and gave this society a sense of shared purpose.

Ensuring values are truly understood on the inside of an organization is the essential precursor to ensuring consistent external communication.

Stories succeed in part because it is the most obvious way for people to frame their thinking. In their book In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work (HBS Press, 2001), authors Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak tell readers about 3M’s preference for narrative strategic plans over bullet points. Why? Because a narrative approach that grabs people emotionally is not only inspiring, it is, simply, the best way to explain abstract concepts and galvanize support. In other words, stories are uniquely capable of carrying the day.

In the 19th century, at least one senior official of the British Post Office recognized that using engaging language would more effectively advance his departmental work. This man, Anthony Trollope (more familiar to us today as a novelist than as a bureaucrat), intentionally crafted reports, according to Simmons, that were “pleasant to read.” This is a tradition carried on today, most notably, by foreign service officers; George Kennan’s famous “X” memo comes to mind. By relating timely stories about events abroad (Kennan’s warning about communism led to the American doctrine of containment), the recipient nation learns what is going on around the world, assesses the mood, and duly adjusts its policies.

Storytelling, rather than PowerPoint presentations, might be equally effective.

Simmons draws a distinction between early brands that succeeded by selling, and newer brands that succeed by seducing. The former get “in your face,” while the latter lures you in. But even Starbucks – one of the best of the new brands – has not, according to Simmons, realized the potential of its story. True, its CEO Howard Schulz has told his own story through a bestselling book but Simmons is more interested in the stories that remain: the link Starbucks has with the people and countries that grow its product may potentially be more valuable. An adventurous narrative could transform this story into exciting human stories illustrating deep-seated truths about the brand. And the story approach is perfectly in synch with the Starbucks identity as a local community forum for telling stories.

Fundamental change is necessary if companies and brands are to develop their own distinctive stories. First of all, there has to be a change of mindset. The return on telling stories is never immediately obvious. It requires a leap of faith, but Simmons assures organizations there are gains from improving writing abilities. Differentiation is only the most obvious. Less obvious, but perhaps more important, is the rise in capacity for thinking.

Second, who is going to tell the stories? Some brands may do this instinctively without appointing anyone specific as corporate ‘storyteller.’ Simmons tells us most organizations feel more comfortable hiring “a new conference organizer” than they do a creative writer. Ask who will find and write the brand’s stories and it’s likely the question is answered with a blank look. Too bad, because what they need are creative writers, not project managers. Too often, when they need a writer, they buy one instead of developing the writing capacity from within. The goal should be to produce teams capable of generating creative ideas everyday from the inside.

Here lies the real problem. Instead of being self sufficient, organizations lean too heavily on outsiders. By asking consultants or tactical agents to do their thinking, organizations create a culture of dependency and an atmosphere that supports the status quo not innovative thinking.

To complement Simmon’s own book, take his advice and carefully absorb Gordon MacKenzie’s work on creative thinking, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace (Viking, 2000). I remember it as one of the most entertaining business books I’ve ever read (it’s also, without a doubt, the most unique looking, which adds to the enjoyment). Simmons clearly agrees with MacKenzie’s concern about organizations that pressure individuals to adopt their view of “normal” and, endorses MacKenzie’s warning that “if you are hypnotized by an organization’s culture, you become separated from your personal magic and cannot tap it to help achieve the goals of the organization.”

If one of your goals this summer is to do some meaningful summertime reading, consider these two as a worthwhile match set.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, 22 May 2003)

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