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:
Last year, automotive companies spent more than $20 billion dollars on advertising.
And what did they get for all that cash?
Endless shots of sports cars speeding through S-turns, SUVs bouncing up rocky trails or through deep snow, and pretty cars posed in gleaming show rooms. And interior shots of polished wood panels, cool-looking dashboards, and comfortable leather seats with plenty of head- and legroom.
The ads look so much alike partly because the cars look so much alike.
If you’ve seen one, you’ve just about seen them all. If it weren’t for the logo, you’d be hard pressed to identify the car.
It’s not that these are bad ads. They look great. They sound great.
But they all look the same. Cadillac. Infiniti. Lexus.
There’s rarely a story. So it’s tough to make an emotional connection.
They’re all about features. No real reason to buy. So they don’t break through.
Good auto advertising is hard. When cars look the same, share the same price points, and try to appeal to the same consumers, it’s no surprise that the advertising is so similar. And forgettable.
But not all car advertising is bland.
Occasionally a brand breaks through the clutter with a compelling story that drives home a unique brand position and reason to buy.
Check out this spot (it’s a few years old) that beautifully tells a value-based story about the VW Jetta.
Beautifully shot, nice soundtrack, and a great story.
More recently, Toyota did a good job breaking through the mini-van clutter with it’s Swagger Wagon campaign. Each individual spot is a unique twist on how one of the car’s features makes life better for the self-centered owners. I like the back-up camera spot:
The campaign was supported with longer-form videos online, including this hip-hop video featuring the Sienna parents.
Note that video has more than 7.5 million views on YouTube. Not bad for a car ad (compare that to the Cadillac ad above which only has about 170,000 hits). Want the MP3 for your iPod? Me neither, but it’s available here.
And speaking of hip-hop videos, there’s the KIA Soul Hamsters.
It seems you either love it or hate them.
I hate them.
Partly because I don’t get it. Partly because the music is bad. And again, what’s the story? Where’s the reason to buy?
But then I’m not a hamster or a hip-hop artist, so clearly I’m not in the target demo. I’d rather get with a toaster that drives.
It does deserve some credit, though, for being different enough to get noticed. Now if KIA would get to work on the story…
When it comes to telling a compelling brand story, nothing is more powerful (or more effective) than letting your customers do the talking.
That’s exactly what Patagonia has been doing for three decades.
Every year, customers send more than 80,000 photographs of themselves doing the things they love—wearing Patagonia gear.
And the results are stunning.
Rock climbers. Tree sitters. Alpine skiers. Hikers. Wild-life.
Thousands of photos taken in places with crazy names like: Suicide Rock, The Thrill is Gone, and The Asylum.
A recent issue of the catalog featured stories of failure—written by climbers who got tantalizingly close to a summit, only to have to quit climbing before reaching the top. Sometimes it really is about the journey (though not always by choice).
And between the customer stories are photos and descriptions of the gear that makes it all possible.
Customer photos and stories featured on the home page and blog.
And a microsite called the Tin Shed (harking back to the shed in which Patagonia first opened) where you can see even more photos, watch video, and hear audio from customers like Maxime Turgeon who rode his bike 770 miles around the Alps looking for new climbing routes to try.
Or check out the story of Fletcher Chouinard and several others who visit the Mentawai Islands off the coast of Sumatra to test their new surf boards.
There’s some really good stuff here.
Patagonia gets bonus points for its “Spread the Shed” feature which makes it easy to tweet, email, dig, and otherwise share these incredible stories.
The most important part of these stories is that they aren’t about Patagonia at all. No talk about the triple stitching or waterproofing of the jacket a person is wearing. Or the unique cut of a fleece liner.
Just aspirational images and stories about what their customers love to do.
And by retelling these stories in their marketing materials, Patagonia shows their customers that they get it.
They are a natural part of their customer’s world. A brand they can trust.
The reality is that customers often tell the story better than the marketing department. So why not let them?
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.”
It’s a question many marketers face: what do you do when your product isn’t perfect? Even worse, what do you do when your product has characteristics that make people turn up their noses? Or opt for a competitor?
Answer: Use a story that turns the negative into a positive.
I’ve written before about Buckley’s Cough Syrup. It has a nasty taste that consumers don’t like. Once you’ve tried it, it’s hard to want to use it again. And that drives down repeat purchases. So Buckley’s story is that something that tastes this bad, must work. Read more here. It’s a great story and it works.
This past week I saw another example from copywriter Bob Bly‘s newsletter (click here to subscribe). It perfectly illustrates the idea of taking a negative “feature” and turning it to a positive:
Legendary adman James Webb Young, who started selling fruit by mail around the same time that Harry & David did, tells the story of an apple-growing season where he was nearly ruined.
Violent hail storms bombarded his apple trees with ice pellets, causing bruising and pock marks.
He feared massive complaints and returns if he shipped the bruised fruit to his mail order apple buyers. But if he didn’t ship the damaged apples, he would have to refund all the orders, and his mail order business would be ruined.
The apples were damaged only cosmetically. The hail had pockmarked the skin, but this did not affect the flavor or freshness.
Young went ahead and filled his orders with the pockmarked apples, and in each box shipped, enclosed a preprinted card that read as follows (I am paraphrasing):
“Note the pockmarks on some of these apples. This is proof that they are grown at a high mountain altitude, where the same extreme cold that causes sudden hailstorms also firms the flesh and increases the natural sugars, making the apples even sweeter.”
According to Young, not a single order was returned. In fact, when orders came in for next year, many order forms had handwritten notes that said, “Pockmarked apples if available; otherwise, the regular kind.”
Young’s story proves what experienced marketers know: Often, by being truthful about your weaknesses and flaws, you can gain substantial credibility with your buyer, increasing loyalty, sales, and customer satisfaction.
Do you have a product weakness that can be turned into a positive with the right story?
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.
When it comes to telling a brand story consistently over time (and by time we mean decades), very few brands do it as well as Nike. Their most recent ad, “Say Boom” is just another chapter in a compelling brand story about the joy of sports and game changing moments. Check it out:
In his excellent book, Predictably Irrational, author Dan Ariely writes about how people interact in two different ways, socially and commercially. Social exchanges are freely given, without an expectation of repayment—helping a neighbor move a sofa, helping a coworker jump start a dead battery, or opening a door for someone. These are the every day kindnesses that make life civil. On the other hand, Market exchanges depend on money changing hands in return for a product or service—commerce.
Trouble sets in when these behavioral norms collide, introducing market conditions into a social situation. Placing an economic price on a social exchange affects how each party behaves, often negatively. Ariely uses the example of a man offering a few hundred dollars to “even up” on his mother-in-law’s love. It simply isn’t possible, so the idea is almost offensive. He also offers the example of a day care center that introduced fees for picking up a child late, hoping to discourage this behavior, only to see late pick-ups increase. Ariely writes:
“So we live in two worlds: one characterized by social exchanges and the other characterized by market exchanges. And we apply different norms to these two kinds of relationships. Moreover, introducing market norms into social exchanges… violates the social norms and hurts the relationships. Once this type of mistake has been committed, recovering a social relationship is difficult.”
Consumers aren’t the only ones that make this mistake. Brands do it too.
Think of a brand with a market position that says, “We’re your friend” or “We’re on your side.” A few examples that come to mind:
Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.
Zion’s Bank. We haven’t forgotten who keeps us in business.
Verizon. We never stop working for you.
This is great brand positioning: brand as friend, helper, or care giver.
Until the brand introduces a market exchange into the story.
If Zion’s Bank charges a overdraft fee, or eliminates free checking for students because it isn’t profitable, the market exchange collides with the social norm and consumers question whether they really do remember who keeps them in business.
If State Farm cancels a 20-year-old policy because the home owner makes her first claim, or refuses to pay a claim that the customer feels entitles to, the consumer might feel that State Farm wasn’t there.
If Verizon’s network drops calls or customer service is less than helpful, the niceties of the social exchange run headlong into the market exchange reality.
The result? The positive social norm goes away. As Ariely writes, “Once the bloom is off the rose—once a social norm is trumped by a market norm—it will rarely return.” Then your brand story is worthless.
If your brand depends a market position characterized by social exchanges, it is important to manage the brand experience to ensure market exchanges don’t interfere and destroy the social relationship.
Groupon is a great idea and a very successful company. In a little more than a year, it has grown to more than $400 million in revenues. It has local websites offering deals in more than 100 U.S. cities from Akron to Winnipeg and more than 20 other countries. Hundreds of thousands of customers subscribe to their daily email. Thousands more check their website every day. And the daily deals often sell out. 35,000 businesses are on the waiting list to be featured.
Despite the fact that the company employs 70 writers, I am seriously underwhelmed with the quality of the writing. There is no consistency from day to day. No “brand voice”. And the copy is often trite or down right silly.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Groupon. I’ve discovered a delicious new pizza place in my neighborhood and saved hundreds of dollars on photography thanks to them. I just can’t get worked up about such mediocre copy. Here are a couple of examples:
Today’s Deal in Las Vegas (for a hair salon) reads:
“If hair could talk, it would have a mouth, transforming stylish head wraps into cruel mufflers and skinny headbands into orthodontia. Today’s Groupon gives hair a voice without the expensive dental upkeep…”
If hair could talk, it would have a mouth? That’s good writing? Someone call the good folks at Bulwer-Lytton.
Here’s today’s deal in Vancouver for a Chinese restaurant:
“At some point, every country builds a Great Wall to keep the secret of their cuisine from spreading to foreign nations, only to find that the real wall lies in their heart. Tear down the Great Wall of painful secrets with today’s Groupon…”
Huh? How many countries have built a wall only to find the real wall in their heart? To protect their cuisine? And what in the world does that have to do with Szechuan noodles?
Here’s a Groupon offer, I received the other day:
“When applied correctly, cosmetics can enhance the beauty of one’s natural features and advertise one’s crush when written in lipstick on one’s forehead…”
And here’s the first line of today’s deal in San Diego:
“Until the personal watercraft was invented, mankind’s only hope for outdoor fun involved hitting candied hams with tree branches.”
Is this something people do? What does that even mean?
I could go on.
Sorry to break it to you Andrew, but this writing is just not good. It’s trying too hard to be clever. Most of it just sounds lame. Or confusing. Or worse.
If you want to see how good copy is done, check out Woot!
Woot! has a consistent, often literary, brand voice. It doesn’t matter what day you check in, you get the feeling one person is writing for the brand. The writing is always entertaining, sometimes silly, often funny, and very, very consistent.
While Groupon’s writing is mediocre at best, it does other things phenomenally well.
Their headlines are simple and brilliant. Each day’s deal is spelled out so clearly, the customer knows exactly what they’ll get and what they will save. Some examples:
Today’s Deal: $50 for $125 worth of Designer Denim and Apparel at National Jean Company.
Today’s Deal: $89 for Two-hour Jet-Ski Rental from Action Sports.
Today’s Deal: $10 for $20 Worth of Tasty Comfort Food and Authentic New Orleans Fare at Magnolia Grill.
The “Time Left to Buy” counter on each page is genius. It creates urgency and demands you make your purchase decision right now. If you forget to come back later, you miss out on the deal, so you better buy now.
The requirement for a minimum number of buyers does the same thing. It forces customers to opt in early to ensure enough people get in on the deal for it to be “on”.
The stock photography is almost always good: delicious food, relaxing spas, attractive models. It’s hard not to want what Groupon is selling.
And once you decide to buy, Groupon makes it easy with a huge Buy! button you simply can’t miss.
There are a lot of reasons Groupon has been a phenomenal success. But let’s be honest. Good writing, at least so far, isn’t one of them.