Marketing isn’t quite a story

Published by Tony Quinlan on

I notice that Seth Godin’s talking about marketing as storytelling again over at Guy Kawasaki’s Signum sine tinnitu in this post: Ten Questions with Seth Godin

Question: What is an example of company that created a brand by conducting a dialogue with customers?

Answer: You don’t know many either, do you Guy? Ahh, we agree! I think that while markets are conversations, marketing is a story. Starbucks creates conversations among customers, so does Apple. The NYSE makes a fortune permitting people to interact with each other. But great marketing is storytelling, and if you’ve been to a Broadway show lately, you’ll notice that audience participation is discouraged. That doesn’t mean that great playwrights don’t listen! They do. They, like great marketers, listen relentlessly. They engage in offline conversations constantly. They poll and they do censuses and most important, they have true conversations with small groups of real people. But THEN, they tell a story.

Question: Are monologue-built brands a thing of the past?

Answer: I don’t think we’re going to see a huge increase in the number of companies (a few) that build brands by relentlessly changing their story as a result of a conversation. Yes, bloggers do this, no doubt about it. But human beings respond to stories, and stories, the best ones, are personal. We’re going to see far more monologue brands, and they’re going to be tiny and niche-like, and then some will explode into the big time. We’re not going to see too many new Coca-Colas, though. Without TV, (big TV, three networks TV) I don’t know how to build a new one of those. Google is an amazing brand, a great story, but it’s not the same as Coke.

Simon Anholt describes a brand simply as “a shortcut to a decision”, which I’ve always thought a good, sensible, non-jargon-ridden definition.

While I’d like to say I agree with Seth about marketing being a story (well, I would, wouldn’t I?), I don’t. I haven’t read his book on the subject, but from my current standpoint, I think that marketing uses stories and creates stories – or should if it’s effective. But “is a story”. Nah. Not for me.

I think for word of mouth, stories are essential – so that when a friend asks “why that” they’ve got an interesting and engaging story to tell. It’s stories that can best communicate emotional values in memorable ways – and stories that make those values most easily transmitted.

Within that, there’s probably a hierarchy of stories – the most powerful being personal stories: “because when I… it…”; moving through group/society stories on out to product/brand stories. And most memorable adverts use stories in some form or another – FirstDirect, Gold Blend, etc.

And, crucially, it’s not about creating the stories, far less controlling them. Successful word of mouth comes from products/brands/services that operate in places where people will have stories – and the product alters the story in some significant way from the norm. And that’s where the spark for word of mouth comes in.

There’s a bigger article on this lurking – and a full-on keynote presentation in the works – but that’s the topline. To create word of mouth, create an environment in which stories emerge.

Categories: Narrative


Michael · 20 August 2006 at 7:52 pm

Glad to have been pointed to your site via Jack Yan’s blog.
Maybe great brands are story accelerators? Allowing for many stories to come into being very quickly?
I tell stories all the time. So I am sure to learn a lot from your postings.
Thanks for enlarging the conversation for me.

Tony Quinlan · 24 August 2006 at 10:16 am

Michael, welcome.
Interesting point. I think that great word of mouth brands generate clusters of stories. And brands that work in different areas are flexible enough to allow different kinds of stories around them. And yes, a great brand – one that has passionate consumers – probably does accelerate the creation and transmission of stories. Thanks for that thought.

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