The New Gypsies and Brand Narrative

Finding a Story Without a Brand Narrative

Our very own Larry Vincent wrote an interesting piece that answers a question that often comes up in our branding work. How do you tell a story when the foundation is a weak brand narrative? For example, how do you make a corporate brand a story? It is not a character in action. In fact it’s multiple characters and usually many actions. Larry has addressed this question from many angles here on Studio Notes. In this new piece, he shares some of the science in storytelling as well as how we use photography in the studio to find and hint at the story behind the brand.

Larry shares 5 tips, originally developed by journalists Rob Rosenthal and Mark Kramer, that help us develop a story when a narrative is weak:

  • Sharp images—which means make the story visual. Use the writing and interview tape and sound to create pictures for listeners
  • Strong characterization—allow listeners to really get to know someone and what makes them tick
  • Anecdotes—short stories within the larger story
  • Unique location—some place that’s maybe strange or hard to get to or surprising, that can help overcome a deficit in narrative
  • Clever production—it needs to be well done and artful. If it’s plain, it may not work.

[via Occasional Story and How Sound]

The Storytelling Power of Titanic

Surprising Truth to Great Brand Storytelling

There’s a phrase I often use in the studio. I remind the team to “mine the gap.” No, that’s not a typo. I know very well that the voice on the UK tube system advises passengers to mind the gap, meaning to watch their step. This is my attempt at being clever—to focus the team on one of the most important storytelling principles: to purposefully leave out parts of the story.

Great storytellers engage our imagination through subtlety. Alfred Hitchcock required a MacGuffin–a plot point or a reference in the story that the characters recognized as important but was never fully explained for the audience. George Lucas employed a brilliant MacGuffin in Star Wars: Episode IV, when Luke and Obi Wan Kenobi off-handedly describe the Clone Wars. The audience would not know what the Clone Wars were until 30 years later when Lucas dramatized them in the prequel trilogy. It didn’t matter. For most die-hard Star Wars fans the Clone Wars was much more enjoyable as a mysterious bit of storytelling that was never fully explained.

When I say “mine the gap” I’m encouraging the team to rely on a MacGuffin or two; to hint at a part of the narrative that we leave to the imagination of the brand’s audiences. We can hint at these unexplained storylines through design cues, through messaging, and through details incorporated into a brand experience. The Starbucks logo is one such MacGuffin.

Connecting a Siren to Coffee Beans

Storytelling and the Starbucks LogoThe mermaid is clearly a nod to the heritage of the name, which is inspired by the name of a character in Melville’s Moby Dick. To really tap the Melville narrative, you might be tempted to use a large whale in the logo. But that’s not mining the gap. That’s not playing with the audience’s imagination. That’s not good brand storytelling. Here’s what Starbucks has to say about why they chose the mermaid:

There was something about her–a seductive mystery mixed with a nautical theme that was exactly what the founders were looking for. A logo was designed around her, and our long relationship with the Siren began.

So, the mermaid/siren became an emblem precisely because she connected to the story the brand wished to tell while still being somewhat ambiguous. She hinted at a mythology–a back story that is never fully explained but deeply sensed.

Why the Titanic Brand Still Draws Us In

A new paper in a soon-to-be-released issue of the Journal of Consumer Research validates this approach. In “Titanic: Consuming the Myths and Meanings of an Ambiguous Brand,” authors Stephen Brown, Pierre McDonagh and Clifford J. Schultz argue that the missing details can often provide a brand with a long life. Their case in point: the Titanic. It continues to capture our imagination even though the disaster at the root of its mythology occurred more than a century ago. They argue that the many unanswered questions about the ill-fated steamship have fueled an appetite for interpretation and imagination. That’s why the brand is still powerful enough to inspire a billionaire to propose building an exact replica to take the seas again.

As first reported in the online journal Live Science, this research challenges some of the most sacred notions in branding–that everything should be clear, concise and coherent. Instead, it brings us back to the MacGuffin. It suggests that the power of myths can elevate an otherwise unfinished story.

the Titanic’s consumer appeal is partly explained by the myths it embodies. The myth of nature trumping technology, the almost biblical lesson that great riches are worthless in life-or-death situations, and the accumulating layers of myth that have been added to the sinking by the Titanic’s portrayal in pop culture.

The Week in Brands


The Week in Brands

Each week the Brand Studio team selects the most interesting brand news and stories. Here are the team favorites for the week ending Saturday, September 28, 2013.


[tps_title] Agencies and Brands Need Storytelling[/tps_title]


Photo: Mike Grenville via Flickr

[/two_third][one_third_last]This OpEd by Momentum Chief Creative and Innovation Officer Jon Hamm visits a theme we often discuss: the importance of storytelling for brands. Hamm argues that “the most powerful stories happen in the mind of the audience, making each and every story unique and personal for the individual.” [/one_third_last]

Top 5 Branding Related Stories This Week

From new math that can help us identify the most influential audiences for our brands, to a retrospective of historic fashion photography and its influence on current brand images, there was plenty of branding related news nuggets to consider this week. Here were 5 that piqued my interest.

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Selling Well with Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink in conversation with Larry Vincent from Ted Habte-Gabr on Vimeo.

To Sell is Human by Daniel PinkUnless the word is in their job title, if you mention the word selling makes a lot of people squeamish. Part of the reason we feel this way is because so many of us have had bad encounters with sales people. Who hasn’t felt trapped by the salesman on the car lot, employing tactics we know very well are intended to part us from our money as quickly as possible. We don’t want to be that guy. For others, it’s merely the notion that we might have to ask someone to do business with us. Maybe we’re introverted. Maybe we’re shy. Maybe we just don’t like asking people for money. No matter our reason, a lot of us don’t like the idea of selling.

In his new book, To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink asserts that more of us are sales people then we realize. Pink asserts that the majority of people who work in the US are in positions designed to move others. In other words, they’re selling. They might not be literally titled as sales people, but their function is to support the closing of a transaction.

Consider: The United States manufacturing economy, still the largest in the world, cranks out nearly $2 trillion worth of goods each year. But the United States has far more salespeople than factory workers. Americans love complaining about bloated governments–but America’s sales force outnumbers the entire federal workforce by more than 5 to 1. The U.S. private sector employs three times as many salespeople as all fifty state governments combined employ people. If the nation’s salespeople lived in a single state, that state would be the fifth-largest in the United States.

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan for Live Talks LA. Always an engaging personality who doesn’t shy away from statistics that make his points even more compelling, Pink said he wrote his new book because there is a surprising dearth of good material on what it takes to sell, especially given the fact that selling is something each of us has the potential to do well. I always enjoy hearing Dan speak, and I really enjoyed To Sell is Human. It is filled with great insights and stories of lovable characters like Norman Hall, the last Fuller brush man.

Norman Hall is, no doubt, the last of his kind. And the Fuller Brush Company itself could be gone for good before you reach the last page of this book. But we should hold off making any wider funeral preparations. All those death notices for sales and those who do it are off the mark. Indeed, if one were to write anything about selling in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it ought to be a birth announcement.

Check out the video and buy the book. It has something for everyone.

From Mad Men to Brand Real

European Business Review[quote float=”left”]Brands only accrue value through the delivery of exceptional experiences.[/quote] I had the privilege of writing a piece for the July issue of European Business Review, which was released today. I returned to my favorite topic: how branding is a strategic discipline that must be managed by the most senior leadership of an organization. I’ve been really excited to hear more leaders and critics alike discussing the meat of a brand, instead of the sizzle. I firmly believe we are at a moment in time in the business community where leaders are re-evaluating how they go about building strong brands. Some of these evaluations are by choice, others by compulsion. Because “the brand” has become so important to any successful business, I am hopeful that more leaders will recognize it is not something that lives exclusively in the domain of the marketer.

Check out the article here.