Storybranding

If, in 1891, you were suffering from a “bilious” or “nervous” disorder, apparently all you needed to do was take Beecham’s Pills, the “most marvelous antidote yet discovered.” In fact, it would also take care of your weak stomach, sick headache, impaired digestion, constipation and disordered liver. Wow. What a deal!

Better yet, this miracle cure was “sold by all druggists” (which makes you wonder why they included a mailing address at the bottom of the ad to purchase the pills “if your druggist does not keep them” but, oh well). Or you could choose to take William Radam’s “Microbe Killer” that would “Cure All Diseases” with its formulation of sulfuric acid and red wine – a liquid that, taken in large enough quantities, was quite poisonous. Besides that, it just plain didn’t work.

Fast forward to the mid-20th century when advertising was, in theory, much better regulated and, hopefully, more well-thought out. However, when looking at that era’s ads, you’ll see:

  • Camels cigarettes boasting that more doctors smoke their brand than any other
  • Babies sealed in clear plastic with the phrase “The Best Things in Life Come in Cellophane” embossed over their images
  • A wife being unreservedly spanked by her husband because she’d bought “flat, stale coffee” rather than Chase Sanborn

It’s no wonder that marketing can feel . . . sometimes dishonest, sometimes desperate and sometimes downright sleazy in its attempts to grab the customer’s attention and get the almighty dollar. That’s why it was so refreshing to find an e-book titled StoryBranding: Creating Stand-Out Brands Through The Power of Story by Jim Signorelli that suggests a much better approach.

I have to admit that, when I first saw this book, I was skeptical. I’ve read so many books/e-books/articles/blog posts/white papers/whatever on content creation and seen so many shady and/or distasteful marketing tactics that I didn’t really expect a fresh and straightforward perspective – but I was quickly proven wrong.

Traditional marketing campaign process

Signorelli began developing his method when he started to question the typical process of a marketing campaign. In this process, the two key personnel have been the account people who sell the ads and the “creatives” who write and otherwise design the marketing materials. In the traditional process, the account person listens to the client’s wishes and then creates a one-page summary of the conversation, including the desired target market, the promise being made in the campaign, and the hoped-for effect.

It can take countless hours for an account person to get a client to agree to the summary and sign off, with some clients focusing on minute details rather than the big picture. Once the brief finally gets signed, though, the account person hands it off to the creatives, who are then supposed to make marketing magic out of the words penned on that page. If they don’t agree with the direction of the campaign, they’re typically told – “Sorry. That’s what the client wants.”

Signorelli suggests – and I wholeheartedly agree – that, although direction and structure are necessary, this definitely isn’t the best way to stimulate originality and creativity.

Spark for StoryBranding

Discover how StoryBranding is different from traditional brand marketing strategies

Signorelli was getting ready to start this tiresome process again, this time for a well-known bank. When he met with their team, he “listened intently through eight hours of charts, diagrams, research summaries, and shifted paradigms.” His goal was to find the unique selling proposition to include in the creative brief. At the end of the eight-hour meeting, the client asked to see the brief in the morning. Since the traditional process basically consisted of regurgitating what was already said to assure the client that the account person hadn’t dozed off during a crucial moment, Signorelli agreed to the deadline.

The next morning, though, as he was dreading “another eight hours of death by PowerPoint,” an idea struck him. All he was planning to do was to repeat what the client had said, much like students writing down teacher comments in the hopes of passing a test. Did that process make any sense whatsoever??

Not once, he realized, had he been trying to write down words that would “trigger creativity, inspire new thinking, or truly help the creative team understand the prospective buyer’s problem.” In fact, everything was being boiled down to numbers: demographics, psychographics, ranked importance of features. Very little included what it would be like to be a prospect for this client.

He realized how silly that really was. So, instead of writing a standard brief, he wrote a letter as if he were a prospect with a banking problem that needed a solution. “I became like a novelist writing a mini-story that would help readers identify with the prospect . . . something that had more of an emotional core – something that enabled the reader to vicariously feel the way the prospect feels.” (You can see the letter on pages 27-28 of the book.)

Signorelli then read that letter to the clients, clearly an unconventional approach. After an uncomfortable silence, the bank president admitted that he heard statements like those in the letter “all the time.” And, although the bankers were hesitant to move forward with an advertising campaign without a traditional brief, they agreed to try out this new process – and were thrilled with the results.

The advertising campaign, Signorelli says, “didn’t make empty promises about a unique selling proposition that wasn’t actually unique. It didn’t brag. It wasn’t flowery. It didn’t try too hard. Rather, it was advertising that demonstrated that this bank understood ‘busy.’ And it proved it knew the importance of simplicity.”

Simplify. That was the theme that, after truly understanding the needs of the bank’s customers, undergirded every piece of its marketing. Note that this word was never explicitly used in the advertising messages. Instead, each ad was associated with the theme – and it became a very successful strategy and campaign.

Product versus brand

Signorelli distinguishes the difference between a product and a brand, saying they are related – in the same way that a “house” is related to a “home.” Like a home, a brand has connotations (subjective thoughts and feelings) associated with it that exist because of a particular person’s exposure and/or experience with that brand.

Frustrating for marketers but true: these connotations cannot be controlled by those in charge of the brand. They can attempt to influence the perceptions, which is where effective StoryBranding comes in, but they cannot lay down the law about how prospects must feel about a brand.

“Stories,” Signorelli writes, “don’t point a finger at us while telling us how to think and feel. Rather, they invite us to think and feel for ourselves.”

Two brands that do this successfully include:

  • Harley, associated with liberated living
  • Disney, associated with the joy of magic

And, “to the extent we identify with their causes, we are more welcoming of anything they have to say relative to the typical brags and boasts we are often exposed to by advertisers.”

Here are a few other points made by Signorelli in his book:

  • Become more like an author with an important message and less like a salesperson with a sales quota.
  • Think of your brand as a story with well-developed characters, plots, and themes.
  • One of the most difficult challenges we face as marketers of our brands is knowing how to define our brand’s soul as something that is real and not just manufactured.
  • “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” (quote by German philosopher Hannah Arendt)
  • We are consistently bombarded with explicit statements of values, typically starting with the pronoun “we” in so-called theme lines, e.g., “We care, help, know, think, believe,” etc. It doesn’t matter what “we” think. What matters is what our audiences think or have come to think about what our brand represents.

Successful brand messages include:

  • Just Do It for Nike
  • Think Different for Apple
  • Be All That You Can Be for the US Army

This overview is just the tip of the iceberg of StoryBranding. If this mindset intrigues you and/or you’re tired of traditional marketing processes, you should definitely get the book. And, let us know your thoughts in a comment below.