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April 11th, 2017

Why story and narrative matter…even in marketing


My wife and I have just settled down for the long evening’s nap.

When what to my wondering eye grabs my vision,

But a true crime story on television.

Alas it was one my wife had watched hence,

And she spilled the “whodunit” just 10 minutes in.

Angry was I, and rose with a burst.

Why would she tell me??? That is the worst!

I turned off the set, and laid back in frustration,

While secretly planning my own spoiler retaliation.


This playful little piece of prose is based what actually happened to me last night. Watching a true crime story on TV, my wife (who had watched the episode before) blurted out what happened just ten minutes into the episode. I was a bit perturbed. But that got me thinking about the construct that had just unfolded. I was watching the show specifically to find out “whodunit.” By telling me, and “spoiling” the episode, my wife was actually telling me exactly what I wanted to know. So why did I get mad?

Because story matters. And many times it matters more than the outcome.

The Spoiler Alerter is the worst

In an era of Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and a rejuvenated Star Wars franchise, we’ve come to expect a preceding announcement of “spoiler alert” as an integral part of modern etiquette. Seriously, I would rather have someone cut me off in traffic or hang up on my phone call than tell me who the next member of House Stark is to bite it.  The reason is that we really do enjoy the narrative, the story, the buildup in all of these shows. For many years, Titanic was the highest grossing film of all time. This was actually an instance that we all knew the outcome but were overtly more interested in the story. We watched it for the story, not the conclusion.

So, yeah, I probably could have still enjoyed the true crime episode I was watching even though my wife spilled the beans, but frankly I was a bit sleepy anyway. Didn’t change the fact that I was nevertheless a bit aggravated by the whole episode.

So what is the marketing lesson here?

Well, the lesson is the same: Story matters, sometimes more than the outcome. A common marketing buzz phrase is “brand narrative,” but this is one instance in which the thought behind the concept is substantive. People follow stories. People are engaged by stories. Much more so than product features. Cosplay thrives because people identify with and relate to totally imaginary beings who possess their own, often extensive, stories. People write fan fiction to further these stories. There are no “Consumer Goods Conventions” where people dress up like Tide bottles or rolls of Charmin.

Being engaged by stories is part of our DNA and uniquely human. It is one of if not the most uniquely human characteristics. In the very beginning, stories followed the origins of gods and heroes. Today, the most successful brands take this ethos and apply it to what would otherwise be a mundane article of clothing or electronic device.

I don’t really believe that a true “brand” can exist without a supporting story. Sure, you can have a logo and graphic standards guidelines, but these technical elements a brand does not make. The narrative does. Warby Parker has a great story. Luxottica does not. Not to say that this always a reverse Goliath vs. David scenario in which some brands are simply too big to have or need a story. The largest company in the world by market cap – Apple – has perhaps one of the strongest brand narratives of all time. Coca-Cola has a great brand story. Pepsi…not so much.

When building your brand, think beyond price points and product features. Another company can come along tomorrow and offer a lower price and promote different features. Focus on telling a story. Weave a tale. Create a persona. This helps your audience see your brand in a more “human” light and forges the beginnings of emotional attachment.

Happy tales!

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(BTW “Rosebud” is the name of his sled…also Ned Stark dies…and Bruce Willis is actually dead…)

Tim Mask

Tim Mask

President
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