Join us on Friday, April 1st, at 9:00AM Pacific time/12:00PM Eastern, for #kaizenblog on Twitter, where we’ll be discussing this idea of brand storytelling.
“I learned about ducking and diving from the police everyday to avoid the road blocks. I didn’t have a white employer. To go into those areas every day was quite risky. We had police all over in the townships. Fortunately enough, I managed to maneuver and outlast the system.” Herman Mashaba, founder of South African cosmetics company Black Like Me.
“The board has heard every lie imaginable. At some point, you have to have the guts to tell the truth. Show them that no mater how bad the situation, here’s the way out of it. They’ll follow you if they think you’re someone engaged in reality.” Screenwriter, author and teacher Robert McKee.
Brands tell stories because they fill a needed gap. We need to know the “how” and the “why” before we’re really too interested in learning more about the “what.”
When I set about writing Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath In Your Industry (Portfolio), I made a conscious decision to let the stories tell themselves – to get out of the way and let these heroes speak in their own voices and not to try to re-package too much. I hope this freshness comes through. When interviewing, I recorded everything. I captured my notes verbatim. And when I excerpted these stories for the manuscript, I put down their words. Non-native speakers sound like non-native speakers because that’s what they said. You don’t need me cleaning up what is crystal clear.
And this is important.
Authenticity comes from the source, not from what’s been layered on after the fact. We want to context and the backstory. Dr. Robert Cialdini writes in Influence: Science and Practice that compliance jumped from 60% to 94% when a complete stranger asked to cut in line to make copies – just because they gave a “because” to their request. We want to know “why.”
Once we understand the backstory, we’re more apt to internalize it and make it part of our own persona. Dr. Norman Holland, of the University of Florida, tells us,
“We have good psychological evidence that people believe stories momentarily, even when the stories cast doubt on something they know perfectly well is true. And we have neurological evidence that our brains organize experience in narrative sequences. We have every reason, therefore, to believe that we respond both emotionally and intellectually more to narratives than to mere statements of fact.”
This “brain under the influence of story” extends to branding, too.
“When we adopt a brand for our own use, we integrate it into the stories of our daily lives. It’s why advertising works. Even the mere pictures in magazines conjure up stories for us.”
Storytelling, therefore, becomes the means by which we bring people over to our side. And in a life of business, this means that we have to tell the real story, the whole story, and even the bad parts of the story that don’t always cover us with glory. From screenwriter, author and teacher Robert McKee:
“The whole idea is to persuade… and what persuades is the truth. People know when you’re bullshitting. You can’t persuade anyone who thinks they’re being lied to. When you tell a story, the whole gist is to admit the negative side. Then dramatize the positive side of how the courageous little company overcame all the negatives. To get executives to admit they ever made a mistake – that they didn’t predict that would happen, that surprises came from out of the blue – that means they were not in control – that really scares the shit out of them.”
This retelling of the Hero Myth is universally loved, too. Everybody loves it when the underdog gets off his back and back on his feet and wins. But to do that you have to admit that something happened that you didn’t predict or that something bad happened along the way. We have to tell the story of the struggle.
Researcher Anat Keinan co-authored a paper that appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research entitled, “The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination through Brand Biography,” in which the power of “underdog brand biographies” is further explained:
“Underdog brand biographies are effective because consumers can relate these stories to their own lives… These findings suggest that the underdog brand biography is powerful because it appeals to consumers’ identity needs. Consumers react positively when they see underdog aspects of their own lives reflected in branded products.”
Why else, she goes on to say, would Starbucks launch a “Pike’s Place” blend, emphasizing the enormous corporate giant’s cultural beginnings?
Look at the underdog brand biographies of a few of the key Killing Giants vignettes and we see the same thing.
Herman Mashaba, founding is company in the face of not only massive multinational brands but the more insidious giant of apartheid, a system of government established precisely to stop people like him from succeeding.
Jim Koch founding the Boston Beer company on the basis of his great-great-grandfather’s recipe that had been found in his childhood home’s attic.
Dr. Edmund Schweitzer, founder of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, creating the first digital protective relay for power systems in his basement and then selling them on the phone in his spare time.
Geoff Ross, founder of New Zealand’s 42Below vodka, distilling the first batches of vodka in his garage.
These stories provide the context we need to be able to integrate these brands, as Dr. Holland says, into our lives and our identities.
They don’t have to be perfect. As a matter of fact, as Robert McKee reminds us, it shouldn’t be perfect. It should expose the bad times and celebrate them.
We love the underdogs, the Giant Killers, but their struggle only matters when we fully understand just how long the odds were back in the beginning. We all identify with the Hero Myth and we see our struggles explained in the myths – branded or otherwise – that we surround ourselves with. We’re all underdogs. And we’re all Giant Killers.
If stories are “equipment for living,” these branded stories provide ammunition for our own struggles.
The more I read the excerpts from your book the more I understand it aligns with my experience and the development of a new era of business. I have grown up with entrepreneurship in my blood. My father was in the RAF in WW2 and worked as a mechanic preparing Spitfires for the Battle of Britain and other missions. I am proud of that fact. He transferred that experience into working for himself. I am proud of the fact he was an entrepreneur and taught me from age 6 what business was all about. I supplemented that with graduate and postgraduate qualifications and my own experience of business. Only recently have I been able to really focus on trying to build a business again from scratch. I have been through and I am still experiencing many of the obstacles that life and business throw at us. I am in the process of telling my story through my business and hopefully drafting my soon to be accepted by a publisher book. I am committed to doing this through the power of story telling because I know my story is the only one I have to tell. Your book heralds the new age where business and management move away from corporate speak into a new realm of delivering meaning through the power of authentic experience, passion. story telling and a desire to Kill Giants. It has been pleasure to engage with you through your blog and in other forums online.
Given that huge brands do not inspire sympathy in a natural way, it’s fair for them to find a way to take back that customers connection they lost on their way to success.
It’s true, we all love traditions, and tales of how a small company overcame all the odds growing into a multi-national business. After all, if done with some honesty it’s something that benefits all.
I wonder though, are these stories all true? I mean, is the need for a underdog’s backstory so strong it will move brands to blend a bit truth with myth? Is it considered ethically ok to do so (after all, no one’s hurt)?
Kenny: many thanks for your comment & have enjoyed the conversations as well – we share a common link dating back 70 years or so in that my father flew out of Bedford during WW2 in the 306th bomb group.
The only thing hurt is trust! And I’d argue that that’s enough. All brands have stories. They may not be heroic founder’s myths, but there’s always some story somewhere that resonates: the months on the road finding those first clients, the time the company almost went under, the story of the flagship product’s inspiration, etc. It doesn’t have to be “like” someone else’s story – it just needs to matter.
Love the insights, thanks for sharing. I’m a huge fan of storytelling myself and have written pretty extensively on the subject:
Keep up the good work.
Many people associate brands with big companies, but really the smallest of businesses can use branding methods that will help provide them with great rewards. When a home-based business ties a nicely designed theme on all of there products telling the story of whom they are as a company and where they are coming from, it makes the branding work. Any time people see your logo, it’s branding and it helps build your business.