What’s the Story?

By Dan Monroe

Companies engage in two kinds of storytelling. One is strategic, the other—for lack of a better term—anthropological. In the best of all worlds, both kinds of storytelling are organic, natural, and second nature. Strategic storytelling has to do with knowing your audience and being able to tell them a meaningful story that helps them engage with your brand. This sort of storytelling takes place most notably in advertising and marketing.

The strategic story goes by many titles. Back in the ’40s, an ad guy by the name of Rosser Reeves first called it the “unique selling proposition,” or USP. Reeves posited that your message had to share an attribute or benefit of your product or service that was unique to your company with the audience. He is credited with one of the early Anacin commercials about “three special ingredients” that addressed the three aspects of your headache: pain, dullness, and nerves that were “on edge,” providing you “FAST, FAST…INCREDIBLY FAST relief.” It was classic attribute/benefit advertising. Reportedly, people hated the ad, but it sold Anacin like M&Ms. Grated nerves>headache>pain reliever. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

To this day, agencies still talk about USPs. But when the ’60s rolled around, people in the biz started talking some new voodoo, it was called “brand positioning.” Still a strategic story, brand positioning loosened the collar on storytelling strategy a bit. No longer did you have to stick entirely with the attributes or benefits of a product or service. Rather, you could position the brand a certain way. This distilled down to a single “tag line.” A classic example of brand positioning from this era is in the Avis “We Try Harder” campaign. In those days, Avis was second in market share to Hertz. So, the agency capitalized on that by positioning Avis as having to try harder because they were second. For 50 years this campaign ran, and in fact it was only relatively recently supplanted in 2012 by a new campaign from Leo Burnett’s New York office. The positioning itself was created by copywriter Paula Green under the tutelage of the legendary Bill Bernbach, who is credited with changing the way agency creative teams work to this very day, and was extraordinarily effective at proving one of my own personal theories about advertising: The best of it tells the truth.

Nowadays, you may hear this idea of strategic brand story fall under a number of other monikers ranging from “value proposition,” or “value prop” as the cool kids like to say, to “brand promise,” to “value statement.” At the end of the day, it’s all pretty much the same stuff, though: a meaningful story crafted to influence your audience’s purchasing decision. It is the single (let me reiterate that: SINGLE) most important promise you can make about your brand or service.

But what of lore? An altogether different creature, lore is like the stories our ancestors from the dawn of time told around the fire and painted on the walls of caves. Lore is Steve Jobs and Woz building out the Apple 1 in the garage of a modest house in Los Altos, California. Lore is Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother, W.K., accidentally flaking wheat berry and going on to invent what we call “cereal” today. It’s Henry Ford’s assembly line. It’s William Procter and James Gamble marrying sisters, thereby becoming brothers-in-law who would then become partners in what has since become one of the largest packaged goods companies in the world. Lore is the anthropological underpinnings of the company.

It’s easy to see the value of the strategic brand-focused story—the sharing of the benefit or attributes, the positioning of the brand, the establishing of product- or service-specific relevance with the audience. So, what is the point of lore? Most companies keep lore to themselves, but if it’s interesting, they should consider sharing it. You see, lore humanizes companies. Lore doesn’t sell to us; it makes us feel a kinship with a company—whether we are part of the target market or not. You may not be an Apple aficionado, but I’d be willing to bet you can find something to admire about two young guys with a big dream about putting a computer on everybody’s desk at a time when a computer normally took up an entire room, huddled over a table in a suburban garage soldering together circuit boards.

So consider this: Make sure your strategic story is up to snuff and well told, but don’t by any means undervalue the sharing of your lore. The one makes your product or service relevant. The other makes your company human.