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Storytelling vs selling: It's time to start selling stuff properly again

Today’s marketers live in a craven state of panic as they try to seize on or adapt to the latest marketing trend, buzz phrase, or piece of essential new technology (Oculus Rift anybody?) With everybody chasing their tails, worried about missing the latest microtrend, Professor Leslie de Chernatony helps businesses separate brand magic from hype.

Manufacturers are becoming increasingly lazy and over reliant on storytelling in their advertising. Please stop, and start selling stuff properly again.

For the past few years storytelling has been popularised by creative agencies promising a really (!) differentiated branded offer. Yet in all probability it is more responsible for brands becoming more undifferentiated than ever before.

Complicity lies squarely at the door of agencies and their clients who are guilty of ignoring marketing science. They are merely producing and communicating stuff because they can and they have a cheque book.

Almost an eternity ago, Kotler popularised the marketing mix. The 4Ps (recall from the Marketing 101 Price, Product, Promotion, Place) were adopted widely as, along with tools, for example the balanced scorecard, they helped guide the insight, manufacture and sales of products in competitive markets.

It introduced a process and rigour to marketing, something that we are in danger of losing. Indeed, the very concept of a ‘mix’ is being undermined in today’s marcomms landscape as precious resource is split too unevenly across the 4Ps.

The hard work no longer appears to be done at the Product end. Where once a product had to justify its existence, now less time is spent looking for USPs, baking these into the NPD brief, format or formulation changes. Instead too much time is spent arguing with retail customers about Price and chin-stroking in Soho boardrooms over Promotion – inevitably dominated by digital channel chat.

The irony is that if a product really does have an identified USP it can justify a higher price with customers and consumers. This would widen the gap between competitors and as just importantly with own label. It would even help the ad boys write the copy because the compelling narrative would be obvious from the start, lessening the draw of the vacuum which has to be filled with a ‘story’.

There’s no doubt that this is an unpopular view. Kotler isn’t cool any longer, so perhaps it’s not surprising that so many brands let a hipster comms planner with an English degree lead a brand’s promotional planning.

But what really isn’t cool is when your brand loses relevance with consumers, sales plummet and is pulled from the shelves of your biggest retail customers. Tesco isn’t taking any prisoners at the minute and stragglers are being cut loose at a rate of knots.

So next time an agency says that it wants to be your brand’s storyteller, ask yourself whether you still believe in fairytales. Then let’s get back to being uncool and utilising some of the first principles that made today’s brands great.

Professor Leslie de Chernatony is a board director at Life Agency

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Leslie de Chernatony

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