I got into the advertising business because it seemed like one of the few industries where stories counted for something. And I didn't have a lot of skills beyond being one of the few people I knew who actually liked reading Dickens, Dostoevsky and Garcia Marquez.
Decades later, I'm excited that there appears to be a growing appreciation for the primary role brand stories play in business success.
In his fascinating book, Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World's Greatest Companies, former P&G global marketing officer Jim Stengel describes his journey to uncover the secrets behind the explosive growth of brands like Method, Red Bull, Dove and many more. His going-in theory was that they'd all harnessed the power of digital marketing before their competitors. His discovery (10 years and 50,000 brands later) was that the highest growth brands in the world had a stronger set of values and beliefs than their competitors, and communicated those ideals in a way that powerfully engaged the human emotions of their targets in their brand stories.
Many of you will also be familiar with author Simon Sinek's famous TED talk presentation, “Start With Why.” Like Stengel, Sinek explored why it is that some organizations and people, be it Apple or Martin Luther King, inspire and others don't. And Sinek's answer is that some organizations and people know their purpose, cause and beliefs and inspire their targets with them. Others just communicate what they do. At the heart of Sinek's presentation is this declaration, "People don't buy what you do. They buy why you do it." Sinek and Stengel share the belief that your target cares (and your employees care) more about why you do what you do than what you do.
Best CPG brand examples of the power of purpose? Certainly Dove's stand in challenging the artificial expectations imposed on women by the beauty industry. Or Red Bull's consistent commitment to take us on flights of inspiration (rather than bore us with product description). And there's certainly nothing fuzzy or ambiguous about Always' purpose behind the #LikeAGirl campaign: "Always is on an epic battle to keep girls’ confidence high during puberty and beyond!” Sounds a little more interesting than absorption layers, huh?
The "why" of brands has always been the secret to driving brand stories about which people care. It just may be better understood through the research and the codification done by people like Stengel and Sinek. But in today's world of consumer control, and social media, the "why" of brands has reached a zenith in value to brand success. The story is what makes people care. And it's what makes them share. Doug Rauch, former Trader Joe's president, shared an interesting perspective on this phenomenon at June's Specialty Food Show in New York when he said, "The context trumps the content."
The baton for the power of brand stories was similarly carried at the show by retail design expert Kevin Kelley. Kelley called for retail brands to think of the store as a movie story with a series of scenes creating a beginning, middle and end. He cited the clear purpose and beliefs of retail brands like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's that distinguish them and power their growth. Kelley decries the retail design that puts too much of the burden on the consumer to figure it out and calls for "editors" to lead consumers on a better retail story experience.
Certainly one of the greatest brand storytellers of all time, Bill Bernbach, gave credence to the business-building power of story this way, saying, "Is creativity some obscure, esoteric art form? Not on your life. It's the most practical thing a businessman can employ."