Aesop Storytelling Series – Episode 2: As useless as a marzipan dildo

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Don’t take offence, but brand storytelling isn’t really about telling stories.

How could you not love a character like Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It? He’s the master pâtissier of the putdown: ‘He's as useless as a marzipan dildo.’ He’s the Nostradamus of the insult: ‘You're a f**king omnishambles... You're like that coffee machine, you know: from bean to cup, you f**k up.’ And this was years before George Osborne got anywhere near a red box.

You’ll be wondering what he’s doing in an article about brand storytelling. Well, it’s because Tucker understands the importance of narrative, a much-used word in politics. As a spin doctor, it’s his job to keep his people ‘on message’. He’s funny because his MO is all stick and no carrot. (‘You take a carrot, you stick it up his f**king arse, followed by the stick.’) Not that he’d recognise the word ‘narrative’ – ‘let’s imagineer the narrative’ is left to his buzzwordy opposition number. But they’re both trying to get their incompetent politicians to stick to the effing narrative.

People naturally assume brand storytelling is about telling stories – and it is, to a certain degree. But really, it’s about narrative. There’s a difference between the two, one which spin doctors understand. A narrative is the underlying structure of a story; a deep pattern that survives transposition from one medium to another – a factor which makes it an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to strategy.

One of the first spin doctors to recognise this was Mark McKinnon, the marketing svengali behind George W. Bush’s two presidential campaigns. He spent a lot of time studying what voters were looking for in a winning campaign, and discovered that it was less about having a winning ideology than having a winning story. In any election we are bombarded by millions of bits of information – articles, pin badges, TV, posters, and nowadays countless social media posts. Voters seek to make sense of that information; structuring it in a way that gives it meaning. One way they sort through it all is by looking for narratives, meaningful patterns of information that voters can recognize amidst the noise – much like a person with normal vision seeing a number in the myriad dots of a color-blindness test. Humans are hardwired for story, so when we’re ‘in the thick of it’, narratives pull naturally into focus.

Our propensity for storytelling has been noted by numerous social scientists and psychologists as the basis of many aspects of cultural affiliation – wherever the individual intersects with the collective. In short, if an individual can relate their personal story to a group narrative, then that person feels a sense of affiliation to the group. And this is what makes narrative thinking so relevant to marketing. If brands can find a narrative that their chosen target segment find compelling or relevant, then the brand is ‘for them’ and consumers are more likely to purchase from that brand.

Which raises the question: what the hell is a narrative? A narrative is, in essence, a pattern of information structured in a way that’s common to all stories. Each story requires a central agent on a mission, an antagonist to challenge them, and a desired resolution to this conflict. But you don’t need to tell a story (with a beginning, middle, and end) to pick up on the narrative. Take Trump’s recent election campaign as a good example of a narrative. The hero of the ‘story’ was Donald himself – the dealmaker, builder, and businessman who ‘got things done’. His mission was clear: To Make America Great Again. The antagonist was the Washington establishment, who Trump painted as a cabal of self-serving cronies responsible for the free trade deals that sent jobs South; whose political correctness made them blind to a fifth column of Muslim terrorists menacing the Republic. The resolution: if you voted for Trump, he promised to take the US back to a time when it still made things, good folks got paid a fair wage, and the country’s infrastructure was second to none. This ‘story’ was never told as a story per se, but enough voters picked up and related to it as a narrative for Trump to win the election.

What’s the lesson here for brands? If you want your brand to be both personally and culturally relevant, you should start by finding a narrative for it. Defining a brand narrative goes beyond filling out a brand onion or pyramid, or any other one-dimensional positioning tools. It’s about finding the central conflict that animates your brand’s narrative and gives it meaning in consumers’ lives. What does your brand stand against as well as for? Or what is a problem in the consumer’s world that the brand can help solve?

Airbnb is a good example of a brand that knows its own story. Its narrative is,essentially this: with Airbnb, any traveller can belong anywhere, as opposed to being an automatic outsider, a tourist. This narrative is used to make the brand both personally and culturally compelling. Its recent campaign encourages us to experience a destination by living as a local, not travelling as a tourist: ‘Don’t go to Paris. Don’t tour Paris. And please don’t “do” Paris. Live in Paris.’ This feels personally relevant – not many of us like the awkward feeling of sticking out as tourists when we travel, and most of us hanker for some kind of authentic experience when we do. But the brand’s narrative also makes it relevant in a wider cultural sense too. Noting that an open mind is key to the functioning of a platform where hosts and guests of different colours, creeds and orientations must accept each other for who they are, the brand had the brass neck to stand up to Trump’s Islamophobic travel bans with its #weaccept campaign.

Like all good narratives, the Airbnb narrative has a clear ‘dramatic conflict’ that animates the whole brand, and goes deeper than marketing communications. As Airbnb’s senior marketing manager (EMEA), Lulu Skinner, explains: ‘Conflict isn’t just part of our ad strategy, it’s a fundamental part of our brand positioning, how we think about ourselves and our relationship with the world.’

What the brand has understood is that ‘dramatic conflict’ is constructive, not something to be frightened of. Yet the notion of dramatic conflict still scares many brand managers. Many think it makes a brand feel negative or sound controversial. But conflict needn’t be of the offensive Malcolm Tucker variety. Dramatic conflict embraces lots of different types of constructive tension and good brands are able to harness this energy to their advantage: Dove allows women to appreciate their own beauty by taking issue with unrealistic images of women pedalled by the fashion and cosmetics industry; Red Bull’s adrenaline-fuelled adventures are exciting because of their inherent jeopardy; Persil champions children’s right to play (and make a mess) in a world where they are too often overprotected. These narratives transcend different executions and act as a thread that runs through everything they do.

Done right, a well chosen dramatic conflict gives a brand a powerful point of view that allows it to engage with people and society simultaneously.

And likewise, the opposite is true: without a narrative your brand is about as culturally useful as, well, a marzipan dildo.

Ed Woodcock is director of narrative at storytelling agency Aesop.

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