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Anvar Alikhan on the power of story-telling in creating successful brands
The most powerful words in any language are “Let me tell you a story”. No wonder some of advertising’s greats, from David Ogilvy and Leo Burnett onwards, have been great story-tellers. As the legend goes, when Ogilvy was on his way to the shoot of the first Hathaway Shirt ad, he picked up a few props which could add a story element to an otherwise unremarkable fashion shoot. And one of those props was, of course, the famous black eye-patch. In an era when dashing veterans from World War II occasionally wore eye-patches, it immediately created a mythology around the elegant silver-haired male model with the expensive lifestyle: Who was he? What was his story? What was the mysterious secret of his past? These things were never explicitly revealed over the next fifteen years that the Hathaway campaign ran, unchanged. (Many years later, I happened to meet Ogilvy and he told me he got the idea from James Thurber’s classic short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and it was intended to appeal to the Walter Mitty-esque fantasies lurking inside all of us.)
The Hathaway campaign was ranked by Advertising Age as #22 in its “Top 100 Advertising Campaigns of the 20th Century”, and it went on to inspire numerous other brands over the years, including Marlboro, and its iconic Marlboro Man. Today the nature of brand story-telling may have evolved, and brand stories that were once merely written into the advertising may have now become part of the consumer’s larger brand experience, but story-telling has become more relevant than before in our increasingly complex market-place. And an entire mini-industry of brand story-tellers and consultancies has sprung up in the US, specialising in the art of articulating and narrating brand stories.
Jonah Sachs’s recent book, Winning the Story Wars, seems to be an attempt to jump onto this story brandwagon. The author’s main credentials, ironically, are that he played a part in making The Story of Stuff, the anti-consumerist viral video that made the e-mail rounds some years ago. His book talks about how brand marketers are the myth-makers and story-tellers of today, how brands like Nike and Old Spice have created powerful stories around themselves, and how social media is making the art of story-telling more relevant than ever before. The book then goes on to discuss how story-telling can not only help build the brands of the future, but also help transform business and society — which, according to Sachs, can happen when we live out the stories we tell. But the problem is that Sachs looks at the subject not as a brand practitioner, but like a PhD student. And he writes like a PhD student, as well. As a result is the book is full of dense, theoretical fluff: open it at random and you’ll come upon passages like: “Myths tend to be extremely resilient, often persisting and evolving for millennia. But a myth gap arises when reality changes dramatically and our myths are not resilient enough to continue working in the face of that change.” Ho hum.
The subject of brand story-telling, however, is a very relevant one for our times, and our market-place. For a more meaningful discussion of the subject, one probably needs to go back to Laurence Vincent's Legendary Brands: Unleashing the Power of Storytelling to Create a Winning Marketing Strategy, written about ten years ago. Vincent is a brand strategist, who used to work for a brand consulting firm owned by the Omnicom Group. He has worked on major brands like Coca-Cola, MasterCard, Southwest Airlines and Microsoft. And hence he obviously knows what he’s talking about.
Vincent presents the idea of how a brand needs to interact with a consumer's own story. As he puts it, “It is how you activate the personal narrative that determines your ultimate connection to the customer.” He looks at brands like Harley Davidson, Absolut Vodka, Starbucks, Apple, Coke and Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, and suggests that the reason they inspire such intense brand loyalty is because they tell a story that consumers are eager to adopt as their own. He examines the mythologies surrounding such brands, and goes on to urge us to think like story-tellers, developing narrative skills that will enable us to craft brand stories that will resonate with the consumer’s “sacred beliefs”, thereby drawing him/her into an enduring relationship. The book is an interesting exploration of storytelling as strategy, which takes us through the process of crafting a relevant narrative — from the creation of an initial “brand bible” to the creation of characters, plot, conflict and resolution.
There are great opportunities for the telling of resonant brand stories in India today, and two obvious areas are the fashion industry and financial services industry. The pity is that while some of our best brand stories of the past were in the fashion space — Enterprise Nexus’s original, metrosexual version of Raymond’s ‘The Complete Man’ being just one of them — a quick survey of today’s fashion brands reveals just a desert of slick, sterile fashion photography, and very little beyond that. In a scenario like this, an engaging brand story could be an enormous competitive advantage. At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, perhaps, is the opportunity for financial brands. One of the most memorable financial brand stories, for example, is McCann’s superbly crafted MasterCard brand story about those things it cannot buy — where each purchase raises the story’s tension, notch by notch, until it reaches its climax with that final, supremely unpurchasable pleasure: Priceless!
Another great financial brand story was Barclay’s credit card’s creation of a bungling secret agent character (played by Rowan Atkinson, of Mr Bean fame) to demonstrate its advantages, through his various mishaps. It was a story so powerful that it was actually spun off into a movie: Rowan Atkinson’s hilarious spy spoof, Johnny English. And that, ultimately, is the secret of it all: a good story is an end in itself, tapping into a specific emotion and taking the consumer on some kind of journey of transformation. Whether it helps sell a product or not, the story must necessarily stand on its own. If the “story” is nothing more than a thinly disguised marketing message, you’re just fooling yourself.
Of all the brand stories out there today, one of my favourite examples is Surf Excel’s game-changing “Daagh achhe hain” story. Interestingly, before it was recently mined by market research, the story had been lying there for years, waiting to be uncovered, in well-loved works of popular literature, such as Richmal Crompton’s William books (about her endearing eponymous little schoolboy rascal), or in the misadventures of Dennis the Menace. And there’s an important lesson in this for all brand marketers: we need to read a lot more fiction, for it is from fiction that we learn the dynamics of compelling story-telling — not to mention a wealth of sharply-etched human insights.
Meanwhile, there are hundreds of great brand stories out there, just waiting to be discovered, in literature, ranging from R.K Narayan’s Malgudi tales to Amish Tripathi’s new Shiva Trilogy fantasies. Or, indeed, in Charles Schultz’s classic Peanuts cartoon strips. So go on, help yourself!
The author is Senior Vice-President & Executive Creative Director of JWT Mindset
WINNING THE STORY WARS
Author: Jonah Sachs
Publisher: Harvard Business Review
Price: Rs 995