The real power of a good brand story is that it communicates an idea in an emotional way. Listeners immediately get your message and if the story is good, they internalize it and may even share it with others.
For example, you can tell your customers that you provide outstanding customer service. In fact, many brands say exactly that in their advertising, mission statements and their web sites. And it’s all completely forgettable.
Or you can “show” your customers a story.
No doubt you’ve heard about the woman who returned a set of snow tires to Nordstrom (or maybe it was a toaster). The salesperson gladly refunded her money and took the tires off her hands. The hook is that Nordstrom doesn’t sell tires. But they did what it took to make a valued customer happy.
That story is almost certainly an urban legend. But it is told and retold by Nordstrom customers to illustrate how great the customer service is at Nordstrom. It feels true.
Another example is the pizza story told by Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh.
This story has become a part of the Zappos narrative. This story has been told by Tony hundreds of times. It brilliantly demonstrates to what lengths Zappos will go to serve their cusotmers. And each time he tells it, Tony says that he hesitates to share it because he doesn’t want people to call his company to order pizza. (Given that Tony has shared this story over and over, we can assume that he isn’t hesitant to tell it in the least, and this is just part of his approachable delivery.)
I’m reminded of a time when I was in Santa Monica, California, a few years ago at a Skechers sales conference. After a long night of bar-hopping, a small group of us headed up to someone’s hotel room to order some food. My friend from Skechers tried to order a pepperoni pizza from the room-service menu, but was disappointed to learn that the hotel we were staying at did not deliver hot food after 11:00pm. We had missed the deadline by several hours.
In our inebriated state, a few of us cajoled her into calling Zappos to try to order a pizza. She took us up on our dare, turned on the speakerphone, and explained to the (very) patient Zappos rep that she was staying in a Santa Monica hotel and really craving a pepperoni pizza, that room service was no longer delivering hot food, and that she wanted to know if there was anything Zappos could do to help.
The Zappos rep was initially a bit confused by the request, but she quickly recovered and put us on hold. She returned two minutes later, listing the five closest places in the Santa Monica area that were still open and delivering pizzas at that time.
Now, truth be told, I was a little hesitant to include this story because I don’t actually want everyone who reads this book to start calling Zappos and ordering pizza. But I just think it’s a fun story to illustrate the power of not having scripts in your call center and empowering your employees to do what’s right for your brand, no matter how unusual or bizarre the situation.
As for my friend from Skechers? After that phone call, she’s now a customer for life.
Tony could have said, “Our service is the best,” or “We’ll do anything for our customers.” But by telling this story he doesn’t have to. Instead, he shares an experience that a listener can relate to. And we draw our own conclusions.
What stories are you giving your customers to tell?
In case you’re interested, here’s a longer version of Tony talking about Zappos (and the pizza story) from the Business Innovation Factory:
A short excerpt from Baked In by Alex Bogusky and John Winsor:
“Marketing people like to say that product is more than a physical object. As in a cup of coffee is more than a cup of coffee. A pair of sunglasses is more than a pair of sunglasses. A car is more than a car. There’s a story that the car represents. A promise. And that’s what we’re really selling. That’s what the brand is made of.
“Sometimes this story is true, and sometimes, unfortunately, it’s not. Sometimes a car really is just a car. So the process of marketing is to uncover, coax out, and tell a story that is buried inside the product. Most of the time a story can be found, but too often the story is only tenuously connected to the product, and in some cases the story is just wishful thinking on the part of all the marketers around the table. Perhaps the product was created without a clear narrative and audience in mind or is just another me-too product with nothing new to offer. What happens next is too often the sad state of affairs that passes for marketing. A battery of focus groups, ethnographies, brain scans, and more are arranged to go forth and uncover what the consumer wishes the product really was. Then the marketing budget is spent telling lies about the product.”
This small company is doing a lot of things right.
The cycling world is notoriously competitive. The market leader, Trek, sucks up a lot of media attention (thanks in no small part to Lance Armstrong). And there are literally dozens of competitors fighting for the rest of the market: BMC, Felt, Colnago, Schwinn, Cannondale, Ibis, Klein, Lemond, Time, Merckx, Cervelo, Orbea, Pinarello, Scott, Seven, Litespeed, Specialized, Bianchi—the list goes on.
So how does a new start up compete against all these established brands?
Here are a few of the things Madsen is doing right:
Start with a remarkable product.
Rather than creating yet another look-alike road or mountain bike, company founder Jared Madsen focuses on an entirely different category—the cargo bike or bucket bike.
It looks totally different. Almost unexpected.
There’s a good chance you’ve never seen anything like it.
You want to say to the person next to you, “Check that out.”
It’s not just the look. Jared has introduced a lot of unique features you won’t find on other bikes—a massive bucket for hauling groceries or kids, an attached, automatic lock so you never worry about security, and originally designed components like the long stem that helps the bike ride more comfortably.
In part, because of its unique design, Madsen cycles has been featured in several publications, most recently Outside Magazine.
It’s a truly remarkable bike.
Find a new, unique market.
Madsen Cycles doesn’t make bikes for hard-core racers or mountain bikers. Instead, this is a commuter bike. It’s the perfect bike for a mom running errands around the neighborhood or a dad wanting to take the kids out for a spin.
That doesn’t mean that hard-core bikers don’t want one. They do, as a second bike to tool around town on.
Madsen Cycles makes bikes, but they don’t worry too much about Trek and other big manufacturers (yet) because they don’t make those bikes.
Madsen Cycles has a great story.
Jared, a bike lover and engineer, had the idea that his bike could be doing more. After seeing European bikes with a large bucket on the front, he bolted a wheel-barrow bucket to the front of his bike and started riding around the neighborhood. But he didn’t like the awkward center of gravity, so he moved the bucket to the back and started building prototypes. It didn’t take long before other people wanted one and soon he was making them for everyone. Read more here.
Madsen uses a very consistent look and feel.
Check out Madsen’s website. If you knew nothing else about the company, you would likely assume that this is a much bigger business that it actually is.
They’ve invested in a professional design for their logo and website and use a professional photographer to take pictures of their products. They’ve also invested a lot of time and effort into creating an attractive booth for use at tradeshows and expos. They could have skimped on these things and gotten by, but the attention to detail shows through in the quality of their communications.
The result is a brand identity that is consistent and likeable.
They use social media to get the word out.
Madsen can’t afford a full-page placement in Bicycling Magazine, and it’s doubtful that their customers read Bicycling anyway.
Instead, they rely on word of mouth from their customers. And they seed those conversations with updates and videos on their blog, at YouTube, on Facebook and Twitter.
Their videos smartly feature Jared talking about what makes a Madsen different and point out many of the unique features you get with a Madsen Cycle that other bikes don’t offer. They are simple and effective. Here’s an example (more here).
Madsen has also sponsored several events to show-off their products and introduce their bikes to new audiences.
The Madsen Cycle Link Contest
To encourage their customers and fans to spread the word about Madsen, they run a contest every year. When fans post a new link from their websites or blogs back to Madsen, they are entered to win a new bike (they’re not exactly cheap, so this is a great prize). Not only does this spread the word, but it provides link-backs to their website which helps with their organic search rank. The company even provides several banner ads of different sizes to make it as easy as possible for customers to spread the word. Like this one:
Some day Madsen Cycles may be a big company with all the advantages of big budgets, lots of employees, and operational efficiencies. But for now, they’re a small company doing a lot of things right.
What can you take from their experience?
Full disclosure: Though I haven’t done any work for Madsen Cycles, I consider Jared a friend and have had the pleasure of riding along side him (or more truthfully, way behind him) on several morning rides. And I want a Madsen.
Social media has been the “it” channel for a while now. There are dozens of books that will teach you how to do social media, or tell you why it’s important. There are even more blog posts and websites. Advertising associated with social media is sky rocketing—approaching $1.7 billion this year.
The thing that makes social media work is the feedback loop, or “conversation” as the gurus like to call it. And because companies can’t control the customer’s half of the “conversation”, social media can create significant problems for some brands.
Todd Wasserman recently pointed out in a Brandweek article that alcohol brands are having difficulty with this very thing. Fans post messages to Facebook that don’t exactly fit the marketing message:
“I have a problem having just one,” says one commenter.
“Get drunk,” says another.
These aren’t exactly messages that fit with the “drink responsibly” warning at the end of most beer commercials.
And to make matters worse, social media sites don’t make it difficult for minors to gain access to these pages. (Although the cynic in me thinks that this may be exactly why alcohol brands have jumped into social media, despite the risks.)
So, should sin brands do social media?
Probably not. At least, not without some way to limit access or control both sides of the “conversation” which eliminates the purpose of social media in the first place.
But that begs a wider question: who should do social media and why?
My guess is that most brands don’t ask those questions before they jump in.
What exactly will a Facebook page, Twitter account, or company blog do to help meet business objectives? How will you measure it?
Social media can be a great tool for customer support. And public relations. It can be a good promotional tool as well—seeding your most ardent fans with the latest news, promotions, and special offers. It can be a good way to solicit feedback and ideas.
But when it comes right down to it, social media is just another tool.
Brands need to think before they jump in, then use it wisely once they are there.
One of my favorite paintings hangs in a plain white wood frame at the Art Institute of Chicago. Chances are you’ve seen it—if not the actual painting, you’ve no doubt seen a print or mural based on the painting (there’s one a the Mall of America) or in any of these movies: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Wall-E, or Barbarella.
It’s called Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
And it’s one of the first, maybe best, examples of a style called pointillism.
The artist who painted it, neo-impressionist Georges Seurat, was heavily influenced by scientists of his day who write about color and how two colors placed side by side, create a third color at the edges when viewed from a distance.
Rather than blend the pigments on a pallet then spread them on the canvas, Seurat painstakingly placed tiny dots of paint close together. This technique allows the viewer’s eye to blend the colors optically. The effect is more brilliant and richer colors than standard brush strokes create.
It took Seurat two years to paint it.
His planning was meticulous. He created roughly 60 different studies to guide his final work.
Take a closer look at Seurat’s work. What do you see?
People relaxing on the banks of the Siene. If asked, we could count the number of boats on the water or people lounging on the grass—and we would come up with the same number. We would likely agree on the color parasol held by the woman in the middle of the painting or color of the dress worn by the little girl next to her.
But Seurat didn’t paint any parasols or little girls or even people in a park. He painted thousands of small dots of paint on a canvas.
The images we see when we look at the painting are created by our minds as they combine the different dots into shapes and colors.
Seurat’s careful planning insures we all see similar things when we view the painting.
Do you brand like Georges Seurat paints?
Do you carefully plan each customer experience, every communication, and each interaction your customers have with your brand? Do your customers see all the ways your brand communicates and walk away with the same larger picture in their minds? Do you take the time necessary to bring it all together?
And that’s a pretty good description for the best known abstract impressionist, the artist who created dozens of paintings that made people in museums around the world say, “My seven-year-old could have painted that.”
He painted the most expensive painting ever sold at auction—a work of art titled #5, valued at $140 million in 2006 (pictured to the left).
Jackson Pollock painted by dripping, flipping, and throwing paint onto the canvas. At one point, he numbered his paintings, rather than naming them, to keep viewers from reading any unintended meaning into his work.
Pollock’s technique makes for some beautiful paintings, but others are messy and intentionally confusing. Of his work, Mr. Pollock said,
“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.”
Today, many brand owners take a “Jackson Pollock Approach” to managing their brands. They drip, flip, and throw different ideas, strategies, and messages at the canvas and go with whatever sticks.
They are inconsistent in using colors and design. They speak with more than one voice. They change experiences and products on a whim.
Like Pollock, the are unaware of what they are doing in the moment.
The result is something like abstract impressionism. There’s no clear idea to understand or remember. No take away for the consumer.
This is the path to brand failure.
Unfortunately, in order to succeed in a crowded marketplace, there is no ‘get acquainted period’ where a brand can find its voice.
All of the individual pieces of your brand (product design, business card, pricing strategy, website, invoice, user experience, customer service, email, packaging, etc.) must work to produce a consistent message— a recognizable, memorable, and likeable story for your brand. From the beginning.
Jackson Pollock was a brilliant artist. His approach worked well for painting, but is a disaster for creating a brand.
The painting above is untitled, painted in 1949. Jackson Pollock died on this day, 54 years ago.
Earlier this week, Robbin at the Brains On Fire Blog, wrote about a presentation by Steve Knox, CEO of P&G’s Tremor Unit, noting that the ultimate victory in marketing is cultivating advocates for your brand. Interesting post, you can read it here.
Mr. Knox suggests that one way we create trusted advocates is through disruptive experiences. He talks about how the brain is programmed to create models of how the world operates (called schemas), then uses those models as shortcuts to help us quickly analyze and assess the world around us. As long as experiences match the expectations of the model, we don’t think much about them.
Disruptive experiences don’t fit the models and require the brain to power up and try to understand what is happening. They refocus our attention and get noticed. Which is why disruption is such a powerful branding tool.
As long as the disruption is true to the brand ideals, it stands a good chance of being noticed, processed, and talked about.
Which got me thinking about a few brand experiences that break expectations:
• The enormous bag of fries you get from Five Guys (don’t order the large unless you’ve brought several friends).
• The way you are entertained while standing in line at the Magic Kingdom (compare that to all the other lines you waste time in).
• The unexpected overnight upgrade you get from Zappos (versus waiting for days or weeks for orders from other vendors).
• The Coca-Cola Happiness Machine (free Coke—just push the button).
By creating experiences that are unexpected, they break through our models of how the world works and get noticed. And we tend to share them with our social networks.
How are you creating disruptive experiences so your customers notice and share your brand stories?
Contrary to what Tom Peters wrote more than a decade ago, being the CEO of You, Inc., does not make you a brand.
Back then Tom encouraged everyone to think like a brand manager. How do you stand out from your competition? What makes you different? What benefits do you offer (that no one else does)?
All good questions.
But people are not brands.
Brands aspire to stand for one thing (or more correctly, brand managers aspire to associate their brands with a single idea or story). Volvo = Safety. Kodak = Memories. Nike = Achievement.
But you stand for more than one thing (I hope).
You are multi-dimensional. Depending on the role you fill, lots of things change. You may be the boss at work, a partner at home, a helper at your daughter’s school, a coach for your son’s football team, a competitor on the squash courts, and a confidant to a friend.
You can be tough or patient or funny or enthusiastic or frightened or delirious as the situation demands. You change as needed.
Brands have a tough time making that pivot. Just ask BP. Or GM.
And if people treat themselves like brands, when situations change, they can’t easily go from one position to another.
Take Tiger Woods for example.
He is a huge brand, right?
He was an incredible athlete. A devoted husband. A trustworthy spokesman.
And then we learn that maybe he wasn’t all that.
But because he is a brand—a tightly controlled image—when it’s time to pivot from incredible athlete to contrite and apologetic husband, he can’t do it.
At least, not without appearing to be insincere.
And insincerity is the death of a brand.
There’s a lot to be said about managing your career and reputation as Tom Peters recommends (I wholeheartedly agree with this advice):
“… there are four things you’ve got to measure yourself against. First, you’ve got to be a great teammate and a supportive colleague. Second, you’ve got to be an exceptional expert at something that has real value. Third, you’ve got to be a broad-gauged visionary — a leader, a teacher, a farsighted “imagineer.” Fourth, you’ve got to be a businessperson — you’ve got to be obsessed with pragmatic outcomes.”