In 1936, Leon Leonwood “L.L.” Bean wrote in his fishing catalog, “These flies are the result of years of testing to determine the ones most effective in New England waters. Have decided that eight flies in two sizes are all that are necessary and in many cases, three or four will answer nicely. When salmon won’t take one of these flies, you may as well call it a day.”
Few brands would be so bold as to make this pronouncement. But L.L. knew the importance of being knowledgeable and straightforward with his customers, and for 100 years they’ve rewarded him with their loyalty. L.L. was a genuine storyteller. He knew then — and many companies are realizing now — that consumers are looking for honest, truthful dialogue. They don’t want to be sold a product; they want to be told a story.
With so much information available today to product-savvy consumers, the challenge of weaving it all together in a meaningful way — across multiple channels — has become increasingly complex.
Effective storytelling draws from an in-depth understanding of the dynamics between brand communications, strategy and product development. It’s an understanding of the customer, the product or service being sold, and the ability to make the most relevant messages resonate in a way that generates a sale. It really comes down to three things: authenticity, simplicity and empathy.
Authenticity. Robert Frost advised, “A poet should not call himself a ‘poet.’” I suggest that, a brand should never call itself “authentic.” Invoking the word “authentic” produces doubt and mistrust. Authenticity isn’t something that can be created. It emanates from the soul of your brand and is ultimately validated by your customers, as demonstrated through their loyalty.
Some call authenticity the “new intellectual property” because it’s a source of competitive advantage that can’t be copied. “Authenticity rises above all else in defining the personality of your brand,” concludes Christopher Seid, a veteran copywriter in Portland, Maine. “But it’s also amongst the most challenging to manage. First, it’s easier than ever to fake it. Second, it’s easier than ever to get caught.”
As the creative director and managing editor at outdoor specialty retailer L.L. Bean, my former colleague Jenna Klein Jonsson is the steward of the brand’s “voice.” The Voice of Bean is an actual document — much like a style guide for a logo — used to instruct everyone from in-house copywriters to external advertising agencies on how to write in a style that reflects that of a trusted Maine Guide, but in a way that’s relevant for contemporary society.
“The Voice of Bean helps manage the voice and heritage of the brand,” says Jenna. “As trends in language evolve, it’s a challenge keeping 25 writers in lock step. We see the voice of the brand as sacrosanct. It reflects on who we are, and who we’ve been for 100 years.”
While heritage brands often have a leg up by drawing on their past to tell their tale, every brand can benefit from storytelling when done correctly. To maintain its integrity, a brand must always remain true to its values. And yet, to be relevant — or cool — a brand must be as dynamic as change itself. A truly authentic brand reconciles those two conflicting impulses, finding ways to be original within the context of its history.
Simplicity. In our fast-paced world, where people no longer have time to process the information being hurled at them, commit yourself to the art of simplicity through metaphors. In his book, The Literary Mind, cognitive scientist Mark Turner writes, “Narrative imaging — story — is the fundamental instrument of thought. Most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories.”
Metaphors are as old as language, but their ability to pause the speed button and restore mental calm long enough to absorb and understand the information at hand provides a kind of relief to the consumer. Metaphors can help consumers connect on a deeper level to the intrinsic value of the brand or product — whether it’s Tropicana promoting its orange juice as a “daily ray of sunshine” or Geico’s campaign touting that “even a caveman can do it.”
Recent research by Harvard Professor Gerald Zaltman suggests that new products and advertising campaigns often fail because companies do not address consumers’ innermost thoughts and feelings. Zaltman’s work explains how “deep metaphors” provide a powerful lens in shaping what people think, hear, say and do. Effective storytellers regularly employ metaphors to provide personal meaning to an otherwise unfamiliar product, process or service. Demonstrating how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in another important way provides us with a means of relating.
Empathy. Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes, to see with their eyes and intuit what that person is feeling. In the 2009 book, Wired to Care, strategy consultant Dev Patnaik argues that a major flaw in contemporary business practice is a dearth of empathy inside large corporations. He states that lacking any sense of empathy, people inside companies struggle to make intuitive decisions and often get fooled into believing they understand their business if they have quantitative research to rely upon.
Patnaik claims that the real opportunity for companies doing business in the 21st Century is to create a widely held sense of empathy for customers, pointing to Nike, Harley-Davidson, and IBM as examples of “Open Empathy Organizations.” Such institutions, he claims, see new opportunities more quickly than competitors, adapt to change more easily, and create workplaces that offer employees a greater sense of mission in their jobs.
In 2010, one of the nation’s most iconic nonprofit institutions, founded 168 years ago in England as the Young Men’s Christian Association, underwent a major rebranding effort — adopting the nickname everyone has used for generations, “The Y.” But the Y’s new name and logo also coincided with its efforts to emphasize the impact its programs have on youth, healthy living and communities.
As stated in the Y’s branding tool kit, called Once Upon a Time, “In order to fully achieve our cause, our Movement must better balance our operational and impact priorities. Telling stories that define and personalize our purpose, strengths and intended impacts allows us to better actualize how each Y can do more good for more people and communities.”
“We haven’t always told our story well,” says Helen Breña, CEO of the Cumberland County YMCA, in Portland, Maine. “We would often talk about our programs — how many kids we serve, what our programs looks like, how many kids come back. But what we’re doing now is sharing personal stories — our members talking about what the Y means to them. That’s a much more powerful way of demonstrating our impact.”
The Cumberland County YMCA is one of 10 Y’s across the country, from a pool of more than 900, testing the value of storytelling in strengthening its position in the community. “The experience has been amazing,” notes Helen. “Not only are we better at articulating the good we are doing for more people and communities, we are seeing a culture shift that supports relationships and the community. I get pretty passionate about this and see each day the power of storytelling.”
Dan Pink, author of several novels, as well as A Whole New Mind, writes, “We are our stories. A nascent movement called ‘organizational storytelling’ aims to make organizations aware of the stories that exist within their walls — and use those stories in pursuit of organizational goals.”
The principles of effective branding and product storytelling I have discussed here — authenticity, simplicity and empathy — are not new and have been applied in a variety of ways by many companies through the ages. What’s important — and necessary — today is for companies to embrace and organize around these principles in becoming better storytellers. Only then will they truly deliver their products and services in context, and with emotional impact.