If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.
— Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize–winning American novelist, editor, and professor
My editor suggested I call this the "introduction." If you're like me, you like reading book introductions as much as you like sitting through fifteen minutes of movie previews or listening to the waiter drone on about the fish specials when you've already decided on the porterhouse. Okay, in truth, what follows does have the requisite what-possessed-me-to-write-this-book prelude for those who are curious. But it also has the you-have-to-read-this- first-to-understand-what-follows quality of a first chapter. So I decided to call it what it is: a half-chapter.
I went back and forth with my editor on this. But when he argued, "There's no such thing as a half-chapter," that's all I needed to confirm that I should label it "Chapter 0.5." I've always had a proclivity for breaking rules. I'm not quite sure why. As a kid, I can remember hating to be told to color within the lines or to write my "S" exactly like the one the teacher had written on the chalkboard. Fortunately, my livelihood has never depended upon how well I push a crayon. As for my handwriting, many people still mistake my signature for Jim Lignorelli.
I wasn't too concerned with the consequences back then. Today, however, I own a business and have a family, a mortgage, and retirement dreams that could fill a book twice this size. It's funny how responsibility somehow forges an appreciation for rules, sometimes even rules that don't make sense. Though I'll never lose my maverick streak, I have gotten a little better at assessing its ROI.
In keeping with my tendencies, this book breaks a few rules — more, I hope, than it prescribes. These rules are what were handed down to us in the marketing communications business as tradition. And we've followed them for a long time, perhaps blindly. My motive for writing this book isn't to start a revolt, however. It's to recognize a more powerful and creative way to define and sell a brand's unique value.
THE POWER OF STORY
As you'll see and quite by accident, we discovered the power of story, both in terms of those we tell ourselves and the ones we tell others. This discovery opened our eyes to the fact that stories have been, and still are, one of the most useful tools in our communications arsenal. Why? Well, there are many reasons, but the best among them is the purpose of story. Stories clothe truths by not getting in the way of truth. They stimulate and resonate with audiences by inviting them to identify with certain values and beliefs. Furthermore, they do this through the action of characters in response to events, and without any explication by the author.
Certainly all stories intend to sell us something. Whether it's to demonstrate the importance of love, courage, or freedom, some human value always underlies the reason stories are told. But the beauty of stories is that they reveal truth; they don't hit us over the head with it.
Brands have purpose, too. But often that purpose is too raw, too blatant, and too often driven solely by the profit motive. If we look beyond the need for immediate sales, we start to see something far more appealing than a data dump supporting rational claims about a product that allegedly make it the best, strongest, most durable, cheapest, etc. We start to see a belief, philosophy, or cause that builds super-charged associations with what the brand stands for. Instead of telling people what to think, we start giving them something to think about. Much as we form an emotional bond with story characters, we start to relate to a brand in the same way. In this way, a brand's importance goes beyond any functional advantage.
When we buy a brand, in a sense we join its tribe. In turn, we invite the brand and what it represents into our lives, and to help tell our stories to others. Brands as stories help reinforce our own self- images too. Admittedly, this is a difficult concept to get when we've been trained to believe that advertising should creatively promote advantages and benefits. Certainly advantages and benefits are important. But we are humans first, consumers second. Certainly we want things that help us to do more and/or to do it better, faster, or for less money. But above all, we are constantly striving for meaning. Brands perceived as stories to be told have a better chance of helping us find meaning than they do as things to be sold. But to tell a brand's story authentically, we have to know it first. We have to see, hear, and feel its reality because it's there, not just because consumers tell us they want it there.
THE STORYBRANDING PROCESS
StoryBranding is a process designed to help us know brands the way stories help us know ourselves. It's a process that also helps us know a brand's prospects in ways that will foster lasting relationships, immune from any competitive claim or coupon.
There's no magic trick to the StoryBranding Process. You don't have to learn any four-syllable words or embrace any ivory-tower theories. It's intuitive and easily digested. It has been proven countless times to help solve marketing communications problems with solutions that more powerfully resonate shared meaning with audiences. We easily understand it because, without being fully aware, we already use it in our everyday communications. As its name implies, StoryBranding is rooted in the logic of stories, something psychologists have shown is part of our hardwiring. With awareness, we just rely on it more effectively.
We learned about this process from principles that storytellers have been using since the beginning of language to reveal fundamental truths. And upon further investigation, we found ourselves borrowing techniques from successful brands that have, maybe unknowingly, relied upon its principles.
Some may find what follows blasphemous, as it takes on a few ageold marketing myths many of us have been saddled with since the so-called disciplines of marketing were invented. We didn't discover the Universal Truth to how advertising should be created. We did, however, find a proven way that works.
When in doubt, don't. — Benjamin Franklin
My name is Jim. I am a suit.
The use of the word suit as an epithet has a long history. I understand that it started in England during the Victorian era and was used to describe the elite ruling class. Suit gained popularity here in the late 60s and early 70s as a way for the liberal youth to describe people who made up The Establishment — conservative, "my country, right or wrong" Americans in white shirts, black ties, and Nixon/Agnew stickers affixed to the chrome bumpers of their large cars. And somewhere along the line, "He's a suit" also became the way to describe anyone who worked in an advertising agency's account management department (otherwise known as "those account people").
When I arrived on the agency scene, fresh out of college with a blank slate on which I expected to enthusiastically add a long series of accomplishments, I was taken aback when people called me a suit. But I had been raised a Catholic, so I was familiar with original sin. It's a guilty-before-proven-innocent kind of thing, and you have to be baptized in order to be cleansed of it.
So if they wanted baptism, I was going for the full-body dunk. I did everything I could to rid myself of the suit label. I started using words such as man (with the dragged-out a), like, and far out in my everyday speech to make people wonder if I was a stoner. My appearance was half preppy, half proletariat. Sure, I had to wear a suit, but my ties looked like Walt Disney sneezed on them in living Technicolor. I grew my sideburns down to my chin. I sported the same tinted glasses that Peter Fonda wore in Easy Rider. But nothing worked.
Soon, however, I learned not to take it personally.
Creatives, or people in charge of writing and producing the advertising, believed that all account people were just born to piss them off. We were regarded as vacuous, left-brained brown-nosers who were more concerned about pleasing the client than protecting the integrity of the creative product.
Over the years, advertising agency dress codes have changed. Wearing suits is pretty rare for account people these days. When they do wear suits, it's a dead giveaway that they're interviewing for another job. The really obsequious among us will wear a polo shirt with the client's logo prominently displayed for all to see, but the way most account people dress is indistinguishable from how the creatives dress. Still, the negative associations with suit are more than clothes-deep. To this day, many creatives think that account people wouldn't know good advertising if it grabbed them by the hand and walked them to the cash register.
At our agency, we have a rule that a good idea is a good idea, no matter who comes up with it. Although this rule encourages cooperation between creatives and account people, there are no guarantees. The wounds from wars that took place long before our agency existed run pretty deep. That said, something happened at our agency to silence the traditional account vs. creative battles. For the most part, the two sides tend to get along and respect — even like — each other. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which could be the subject of other books. But the most important one came about as the result of understanding the root of the conflict.
In most agencies the account person is responsible for preparing a creative brief. It also goes by other names, such as input document or assignment sheet. Whatever it's called, it serves as the one-page summary of the creative assignment. It includes the basic background information that the writers and art directors (the creative team) will need to develop the advertising, including, among other particulars, a definition of the target prospect, the advertising's promise, and its desired effect. The account person's job is to fill out the creative brief, get it okayed by the boss, then present it to the client for approval. This briefing process can be brutal. On occasion, I have found myself spending hours huddled over the form debating minutiae with a client: whether but sounds too negative and should be replaced by and; the use of from versus to; and the age-old argument about the definition of an objective vs. a strategy.
It doesn't matter that the final brief might be no more inspiring than a blank piece of paper. Rather, priority is given to receiving that all-important client green light to start the creative process. Once the brief is blessed by the client, the account person always has the six-word key to turn off all complaints from the creative team: "This is what the client wants," often preceded by "Sorry, I've been down that road with them," or "I put my ass on the line arguing the same points," and/or "I know the client is being stubborn, but ..." This goes on ad nauseam.
I've always been at odds with the briefing process. On one hand, it seems necessary. Clearly, writers and art directors need structure and direction. But at the same time, this practice has always seemed like an overly mechanical way to inspire originality. Consequently, creative briefs can inhibit the very thing they are designed to facilitate. In an effort to control exactly what information an ad will convey, too many planners make it hard for creativity to flourish. Additionally, creative briefs are sometimes the product of too much thinking and not enough feeling. By design, the brief is structured to require logical answers to questions that explain why the advertising is being created and what it should accomplish. Often, however, the brief will identify or label the way prospects currently feel and/or how we want them to feel about the brand being promoted. But meanings associated with feeling words are very difficult for writers, art directors, or anyone working with the brief to identify with the prospect.
If I tell you that I'm getting tired of typing right now and I need a pick-me-up, the word tired can mean anything from starting to fall asleep, to boredom, to being strained, exhausted, weary, drained — or it could simply mean that I'm a little less energetic than I'd like to be. Unless I do more than label the feeling tired by exacting a more complete picture of what tired feels like for me right now, you will never be able to reach a deeper level of empathy. Traditional creative briefs provide structure, but within that structure it is hard to discern the emotional texture needed to fuel an understanding of the prospect's problem.
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln was given a last-minute invitation to "make some appropriate comments" at the dedication of the new Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Imagine, if you will, that you were given the assignment of writing that speech for Mr. Lincoln. To help, you were given the creative brief on the next page.
Arguably this brief sets up goals worth achieving. But obviously, given the nature of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, its abstract tone and dedicatory manner were derived from something much bigger than a factual checklist of what he had to say. This speech was written from Lincoln's soul as much as it was from his head. It was his heartfelt understanding of the atrocities of war that inspired the words he chose to fashion this speech. Given that we're so far removed from this time in history, it'd be difficult for anyone to write anything even close to what ultimately became one of the most significant speeches ever delivered to an American audience.
But I am not suggesting that to create great advertising we have to be the prospect. But I am suggesting that efforts to get closer to what the prospect really thinks and feels will direct better creative output than the information-only nature of the traditional creative brief. The question is how.
As you'll soon see, we found the answer in the way stories can create empathy.
A few years ago, I was summoned to visit with a client's marketing team to discuss plans for a new brand campaign for a well-known company. To protect the innocent (and myself), let's just call it the Last National Bank. I listened intently through eight hours of charts, diagrams, research summaries, and shifted paradigms. My job was to sift through all this information to find the unique selling proposition, or USP, and articulate it in a creative brief. At the conclusion of the meeting, the client asked if they could see the start of a creative brief the next morning. I saw this merely as a test to see if we were listening. Since I had been writing the brief in my head all day and merely needed to play back words on paper, I responded with a confident "yes," without hesitation.
The next morning, as I sat in my hotel room over coffee and the dreaded thought of another eight hours of death by PowerPoint, I started filling out the brief. As I was writing, I caught myself asking questions like, "Will they prefer this word over that?" or "I wonder if they'll be tripped up by the way I paraphrased their diagram," etc. As I was tying myself up in rhetorical knots, the phone rang. It was my colleague asking how long it would be before we could show them their brief. It was in that moment that everything changed.