In our social media era, marketing is no longer about persuasion and promotion, but connection and customer engagement–and nothing is more engaging to human beings than a compelling story.
In a world of micro-segmentation and instant communication, controlling the marketing message is now next to impossible. Customers control the perceived narrative now. The headline of a 2012 Harvard Business Review blog post proclaimed, “Marketing is dead”. These headlines seem to appear everywhere these days. To use Mark Twain’s iconic statement, rumors of the demise of marketing are greatly exaggerated. Marketing is not dead, but it has transformed into something traditional communication channels no longer serve very well. This shift is keeping marketers up late at night these days.
At the core of every great brand, there must be a mythological narrative that transcends “marketing”. Iconic brands like Apple, Starbucks, Harley Davidson, Patagonia, and Herman Miller have at the core of their DNA a mythic storyline that inspires the actions, beliefs, and behaviors of its devoted members over the long term.
We are creatures of evolution. Humans have shared beloved stories since the dawn of our existence. The ancient tradition of storytelling serves to remind us of who we are, and how we should behave within the structures our village, our culture and our world at large. Brands are no different.
Brand storytelling is the art of connecting the hearts and minds of customers to shared values and ideals that define the “sacred truth” of why the brand exists and who benefits from its existence. Compelling brand stories serve to remind us of something sacred and valued about ourselves rather than promoting some new product feature or additive. Sacred brand stories are not veneer slapped onto the next ad campaign.
Brand storytelling is not copywriting.
There are certain verbal and visual story-based patterns that have always been influential to people in significant ways. We are born with this innate ability to feel and respond to stories, and how we feel about any idea directly influences our action and behavior.
In the noise and clutter of ubiquitous marketing, only those brands that rely on the transcend narrative of their story will rise above to be heard and revered by those who resonate with the core values, archetype and mythic themes of the brand story. From Homer’s epics, the stories of King Arthur’s Roundtable to the Star Wars films, mythology has always been at the core of transcendent stories. Marketers who recognize the mythological story patterns in their brands will have a tremendous competitive advantage in the marketplace over the status quo.
Apple’s “think different” storyline was a classic example of a brand story born from the “rebel” archetype of the persona of its founder and visionary. Regardless of the specific product being marketed, this outlier storyline was both implicit and explicit in the actions and behaviors of stakeholders and customers alike.
From the very beginning, Steve Jobs was an extraordinary storyteller who recognized the power of mythological themes as a guiding principle for product development and marketing. From Apple’s first computer to the iPad, this was not a convenient fiction advertising concocted to sell more products! Yet, Apple’s sales success is the stuff of mythic legend. The values and truth of the Apple brand (or any brand) are found in its unique mythic story.
Brands that lose their way, lose their connection to their sacred story first.
Sears is a lost brand. It has lost any connection to the mythic storyline that made it great. Sure one can make a compelling case about how the world of retail has changed, and operationally Sears has not been able to perform effectively in the new competitive environment, but that argument is a symptom of a previous cause.
The leadership at Sears valued short-term profit over innovation in a changing environment. Forsaking the transcendent value of their brand’s story to guide critical decisions in a changing, ultra-fast world, Sears relinquished its position of greatness to Amazon. Lost brands in every category lose their sacred connection to their story and consequently wander into the abyss. Hewlett Packard may soon suffer a similar fate.
If you’re managing a brand that is underperforming, ask yourself if the leadership of your organization is the first champions and trust holders of your brands mythic story, and if the story still provides the guidance and illumination to keep the tribe connected to its transcendent meaning and behaving in a way that supports the truth of why the brand matters.