Welcome to the Story Business

I’ve got a confession to make: I recently spent an entire weekend watching HBO’s The Wire, getting through 17 episodes in just two days. Other than sloping off to McDonald’s occasionally for a refuel, I did nothing but watch TV.

I realize I’m a bit off-trend here. The final episode of The Wire aired some time ago, and all the really cool people who got how great this show was while it was still on air are probably already onto the Next Big Thing I haven’t even heard of yet. Meanwhile I’ve been playing catch-up, spending a good proportion of the last two months of my life lost in the tragic bleakness of Baltimore’s drugs war.

During this time I’ve come to know flawed cops, corrupt politicians, drug dealers and struggling addicts better than I know some of the people I work with every day. I’ve seen life slip through the cracks of urban decay. I’ve come to understand in intimate, painful detail that the American Dream is broken, and the reasons why. And now that it’s all over, all I can think about is going back there. I miss Baltimore, real bad.

Whether it’s in the form of music, books, movies, news, religion, gossip or advertising, stories dominate the world we live in. We invest huge amounts of time, money and emotional energy satisfying an almost primal hunger to go through the ritual of story — although we rarely think about it consciously, and understand this hunger even less. The Web has enabled new methods for sharing stories with each other, but the basic fundamental drivers lying underneath new technologies remain the same as they were when we told stories around campfires thousands of years ago.

One need only look to how the recession has been portrayed in the media to understand how powerful storytelling is. Rather than dealing with the messy reality of what really happened, we were fed an easily digestible narrative — an epic tragedy driven by greed and corruption, with the bankers cast as the bad guys and the rest of us as their hapless victims. It’s the economic equivalent of Titanic, with share prices sinking faster than Leonardo Di Caprio into the murky waters. It’s an easier sell. In the words of playwright Jean Anouilh: “Fiction gives life its form.”

Yet despite our insatiable appetite for story and its proven effectiveness as the most powerful vehicle we have for communicating ideas, the art of storytelling remains largely absent in the marketing world. It’s confined to a bullet on a PowerPoint slide, or a few clever analogies. It’s confused with advertising, which is merely one facet of a brand’s story. Maybe storytelling is just too vague, too fluffy, too ethereal for the hardnosed business of building brands.

How can we have made such a huge fundamental mistake?

One of my favorite scenes in The Wire comes in Season 4. Two young drug dealers, Poot and Bodie, are discussing the recent murder of one of their friends, killed because he was suspected of being a snitch. “It’s a cold world, man,” Poot says, shaking his head. “Thought you said it was gettin’ warmer?” Bodie retorts, a reference to an earlier conversation about global warming. Poot gives him a look. “World goin’ one way,” he says, voice heavy with resignation, “people another.”

In many respects, the same could be said of marketing. Simon Hammond, Australia’s foremost brand expert, believes brands are in danger of thinking their way out of feeling. There is simply too much information in the world today, and knowing the consequences of every action has led to paralysis by analysis. We’ve become slaves to the very things that were supposed to set us free. Risk aversion is being carried into the boardroom, often with damaging consequences; we’re left with brands that make sense, but fail to connect. They are rational, but dull as dishwater.

People, on the other hand, show no signs of rationalizing. We’re not rational creatures. We like to think we are, sure; it’s comforting to pretend we assess situations based on their individual merit, weigh up the pros and cons, make logical choices. But the truth is that the so-called “struggle” between reason and emotion is more like a vicious beat-down in a Baltimore project. Emotion goes through reason like Mike Tyson through Frank Bruno. It’s the psychological equivalent of a freight train meeting a tricycle in the middle of the night. It’s not even a contest.

American psychologist Jonathan Haidt likens the struggle between reason and emotion to a rider on an elephant. The rider is our rational, conscious mind-the bit we’d like to think makes all the decisions-and the elephant is our emotion, our older reptilian brain who actually makes all the decisions. The rider can whisper in the elephant’s ear, try to smooth-talk him into going in one direction rather than another, but the elephant’s the boss, and he goes wherever he chooses. Our rational mind is just a PR machine, spinning the decisions the elephant makes into more palatable truths.

But that elephant loves a good story.

The truly great brands intrinsically understand the importance of storytelling. Apple is fundamentally a great story — the creative idealist fighting conformity. Nike’s story is the will to win. Honda is a story about the power of dreams. Harley Davidson is a story about the open road versus the prison of suburban life.

The power of a simple, easily recognizable narrative turns brands into something we want to be a part of, and the reason we consistently refer to such a small handful of brands is because they’re the ones who’ve got their stories straight.

Richard Cordiner is planning director at Leo Burnett London. He can be reached at rcordiner@me.com.

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