So, can you tell me more about this brand-as-character idea?

Storytelling for Success

I got an email from one of you lovelies asking for a little detour. He wanted me to circle back around to an earlier concept and flesh it out. So let’s get crackin’.

Storytelling is fundamental to how the human brain understands the world — especially fundamental to how we remember information. And why would you spend money and time on marketing material, traditional or social, that’s hard to remember? There’s a reason we teach kids the alphabet with a little song that has a narrative. This happens then this happens then that. Monty Python got in on the action with their Oliver Cromwell song, which rumor has it John Cleese wrote to help one of his kiddos study for history class.

But it doesn’t take musical genius (or silly walks) to make something stick. Narrative will do the trick on its own. Think about fairy tales and folk tales. Those critters have stuck around forever. Why? Lots of little narrative tricks. For example: Think about how many folk tales have things happen in threes. How many billy goats gruff are there? Three. How many little pigs, in how many houses? Three. How many things does home invader Goldilocks mess up for the bears? Three. Why? Because three is the smallest number than can indicate a pattern. A thing happens once, well, it’s just a thing that happened. Twice could be a coincidence. But three times? You got yourself a pattern there, y’all. And that means narrative. And that means it sticks.

So, if we grant that storytelling makes stuff memorable, what does a story need? You need people (or goats, or pigs, or bears) doing stuff.

Character and plot.

And your brand is your character. Your main character. Your name-that-goes-above-the-title-on-the-movie-poster character.

As you may have surmised from the y’alls that pepper this blog, I live in Texas. And while I don’t want to stereotype, Texans take trucks very seriously. I am not joking when I tell you I have seen an actual bar fight over truck brands. If I’m clever enough to figure that out, then you know the folks at Chrysler are. Guess who they chose to narrate their commercials for Dodge trucks here in Texas?

Sam “My Voice is So Western and Sonorous I Can Spontaneously Generate Whiskey and Jukeboxes” Elliott.

Boom. Character. That’s what I’m talking about.

Now obviously, we can’t all afford Sam Elliot to remind folks that the brand abides.  But every medium, small, and even tiny business can still take the time to define their brand. And should. Think about what you want people to associate with your businesses, then create a character that speaks to those associations.

Of course, you still have to back it up. But that’s what integrity is for, right?

So, what does storytelling require, anyway?

Storytelling for Success

I’m so glad you asked! You’re my favorite. Don’t tell the others. It’ll be our little secret.

The short answer is that storytelling is narrative and narrative is driven by conflict. The long answer? Let’s dig into the guts of that.

Traditionally, conflict comes in the form of the big four: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Self. (But since this is 2014, I’m just going to go ahead and use the term Protagonist, or even Protag, because c’mon. There’s also some other X vs. Y ideas, and we’ll delve into those too.) What do each of these categories mean, especially in terms of marketing? We’ll take ‘em one by one. Starting, in this post, with…

Protagonist vs. Antagonist, ie: Dude in a White Hat vs. Dude in a Black Hat, Superhero vs. Supervillain, Me vs. The Driver of That Car Going Twelve Miles Under the Speed Limit Come ON Man You’re Killin’ Me Here

This is your basic good guy/bad guy narrative. I don’t say that to demean it — there are some real advantages to this approach. It’s straightforward by virtue of being an external conflict. It has a great built-in iconography. It’s also easy to flip the script a little and do an unthinking good guy vs. morally gray but compelling antihero thing, which has worked out pretty well for DC Comics.

A good marketing example would be the (sadly no longer used) Ronald McDonald vs. Hamburglar narrative, or the more recent “lost footage” Grey Poupon car chase. Sometimes, this isn’t outright enemies trading punches — could be buddies eating hot wings, or spouses that have more in common than they know.

How would you make this work on social media? Loads of ways. Personify the players in your conflict and give them both Twitter accounts, say, with lots of banter back and forth and enlisting followers to choose sides — basically an online version of Tip Jar Voting.

“Oh!” you might ask. “Wouldn’t that be good for the left/right campaign Twix has going on?” Why, yes. Yes it would. Excellent question. Five points to Gryffindor.

You could even produce a whole web series with very little financial investment via Pheed, using pictures and text posts and even short videos detailing the escalating conflict between neighbors over noise, teeming with beautiful product placement in a way that’s organic instead of forced.

There’s also the classic Like/Share vote — but frankly? I’d steer clear of that because, as Carole Smith points out over at SynNeo’s blog, it violates Facebook’s guidelines.

It can also come across as needy. Super needy. Creepy levels of needy.

And we don’t do creepy.

Stick around for the next installment, and we’ll take a gander at another classic conflict. And later, we’ll talk tropes and character types. And even later we’ll combine them all into a rich stew of marketing goodness that is both delicious and nutritious. Sound good? Awesome.

So, here’s Thought Experiment #3

How would you write a bit of social media copy to promote your brand that doesn’t mention it by name? AND doesn’t mention your industry?

As an example, let’s consider something near and dear to my heart: Coffee. Folgers is a popular brand, so we’ll run with that. How about a tweet? Keep it short and sweet, well shy of the 140 characters the platform allows so that there’s room for people to retweet with their own handle intact.

“You have grown-up things to do. We can help.”

“You need to be awake anyway. How about something delicious?”

“We can’t make Monday go away. But we can make it less Mondayish.”

Why would I ask this?

Because you, buddy, should start thinking about the experience you’re selling.

Consider it. See what shakes out.


So, this is extra-crispy levels of creepy.

Storytelling for Success

I don’t usually blog two days in a row, but for poor Comcast, I’ve made an exception.

Slip on over to Fast Company and read about the most terrible bit of storytelling since Spiderman 3 hit us with that dance sequence.

When someone wants to cancel a contract or service, yes, by all means, ask if there’s anything you can do to help change their mind.

Once. Not for twenty minutes.

This is a serious case of narrative fail. Customer service reps have to be able to understand the customer’s desires, interpret mood and motivation. They have to tell the right story in response. Social intelligence, just as we discussed before.

I’m inclined to think this will go viral, especially since the recording is so easily shared via Soundcloud. But if nothing else, said recording certainly is instructive.

So, should I just just cram my marketing storytelling in everywhere?

Storytelling for Success

Dude. Dude. No. Just…no.


There’s a time and a place, mm? And that time and that place is not “all” and “everywhere ever.” Because that is creepy. And what do we know about creepy?

That’s right. Don’t be.

Here’s an example.

There’s a mall near me. It’s, y’know, a mall. Anchor department stores, pretzels, questionable knock-off perfumes — malltastic. As you know, malls have been having trouble, so they’re trying lots of things to bring shoppers back in and keep ‘em there. This particular mall has added that most lovely of benefits, free Wi-Fi.

Two of my favorite words. Right up there with “open bar” and “unlimited waffles.”

Now, to get to this precious, precious Wi-Fi, you have to give them your email. Ok, that’s pretty standard. They want to build their email list, and heaven knows that’s become common practice.

But then? After you’ve already signed up for a mailing list from which you’ll eventually unsubscribe?

You have to watch a video.

Wrong place, wrong time. Bad marketing. Either people will ignore that video, or be actively irritated by it. Or ignore the video and then tweet their irritation using your Wi-Fi.

Do you want your carefully crafted narrative to irritate potential customers? Waste all the money you put into production and nuke any snuggly feelings of good will you’re generating by providing teens access to Snapchat?

Didn’t think so.

Choose your place. Choose your time. Don’t be creepy.

So, storytelling is going to be in demand for ever?

Storytelling for Success

Hey, remember when I told you this?

Screen shot 2014-07-09 at 10.30.13 AM

I’m still not kidding. And the big brains at Inc. agree with me.

Check this out. Inc. staff writer Graham Winfrey has a great article, complete with sexy infographic, on the skills that employers will need from employees in 2020 — and all ten of ‘em have connections to that storytelling impulse nestled deep and cozy in the human brain.

No, really. Sense making? That’s understanding and assembling information into narratives. Social intelligence? Analyzing other folks’ narratives. Novel and adaptive thinking? That’s just understanding the tropes and rules of storytelling well enough to know when to break them.

Y’all, one of the skills is straight up called “new media literacy.” It’s right there on the label.

Look. Homer started spinning yarns in the 800s BCE, and we’re still telling stories now. Seems foolish to bet on that changing, doesn’t it?

So, here’s Thought Experiment #2

Who would you cast as the lead character for some of the businesses and brands you’ll encounter today? Who is the name above the title on the movie poster?

For example: If I were casting Tiffany & Co., I’d chose Helen Mirren. Classy, established, effortlessly elegant, strong positive associations…sounds like a natural fit.

What about your phone company? The sandwich shop you like near work? The extermination company who’s van you’re stuck behind in traffic? Maybe you’ve got a Tom Hiddleston pet grooming place nearby, or a Jet Li plumbing biz. Could be that Octavia Spencer would be the perfect fit for the salon that cuts your hair.

Why would I ask this?

Because you, buddy, should start thinking about the character that is your brand.

Think about it. See what pops into your head.