Posts Tagged 'Al Ries'

Holes in a branding theory – or – block that positioning, metaphorically speaking

I have a problem with certain marketing metaphors that have been thrown around recently. For one, I don’t have a hole in my head…My mind isn’t like a filing cabinet…My memory is not analogous to a book stuffed into one of the many bookcases in my home (which need dusting every now and then)…

My closets are for hangers and skeletons…

And when it comes to my mind, metaphors about refrigerators and car garages conjure up the wrong mental pictures.  I need those analogies like a I need a hole in my head….

Here’s what I mean — an article by Al Reis in the April 1st edition of Ad Age.

To file something in the mind is conceptually no different than filing something in your home or apartment.

Clothes in the closet. Books in the bookcase. Food in the refrigerator. The car in the garage.

“A place for everything and everything in its place,” goes the old saying.

Today, we have many well-known brands with no places in the mind to put them.

Holes in Brand Positioning

I sometimes think of this as the “call and response” theory of branding. The advertiser says one word, “Direct” and you play back the name of the brand “Dell”.  “Printer” and “HP”.  Like Cab Calloway singing Minnie the Moocher.

How about this —  instead of a file cabinet, the mind is like a pinball machine.  The more things that the silver ball hits, the more lights that blink, the more noise that it makes, the higher the score, the more likely we are to remember.  A strong brand triggers associations across the brain, lighting up the neural networks the way the Pinball Wizard keeps those lights a-flashing with his crazy flipper fingers.

Strong metaphors, many associations, stories and anecdotes and mental images, narratives — those are what effective branding is based on.  Instead of standing for one word, brands should be understood as wonderfully woven tapestries of memories, images that we can wrap ourselves in.

Aristotle Brand Guru, Part III

In an earlier post I nominated Aristotle as the first Brand Guru because of his ground-breaking analysis of what goes into making a superior drama.  All of his observations have analogies in creating a compelling and engaging narrative for your brand.  The following are three observations on how to apply Aristotle’s framework to the business of branding (and marketing, really)

So, a quick summary of the 6 elements identified by Aristotle:

Plot: what happens during the play

Characters: who are the characters in the play, their roles and relationships

Thought or Message: what is the underlying moral or political message of the drama

Spectacle or staging: the scenery, sets, props and stagecraft 

Diction or poetic language:  the verbal style, the spoken words of the characters.  Aristotle addresses the importance of metaphor and metaphorical language in particular.

Song or music:  how the harmonies, rhythm, instruments and voice all appeal to our emotions through our ears

Observation #1:

Appeal to all senses.  Aristotle recognized the power of engaging all of our senses, not just the words or images.  In the very definition of a brand that means building in the sensory or experiential elements.  The typical Brand Positioning approach does not even touch on the sensory elements.  All too often they are left to be defined by the online group, the customer service group, the advertising agency and others.  Aristotle grasped the importance of the completeness of the experience, the spectacle.  In Narrative Branding we have sought to do the same.

Here is an example.  Try to imagine the Star Wars movies without the musical score.  George Lucas credits the music as among the most important emotionally resonant factors that contributed to the movies’ success.

Observation #2

Characters have roles and relationships.  They are not simply a list of adjectives.  Defining these roles and relationships is often overlooked in branding.  Or it is defined internally by the company and not by their customers.  We worked with one well-known brand that defined themselves as “an indispensable partner” to customers.  The only problem is that customers completely rejected the idea of partnership because it implied a deeper financial relationship than actually existed.  To compound it, the internal legal group decreed that the word “partner” could never appear in marketing materials for similar reasons that customers rejected it.  Through co-creation research we were able to bring the customer’s desired relationship to light. As a result the brand gained both credibility and relevance — along with a jump in sales and margins.

Observation #3

Aristotle understood the importance of time.  Plot is all about how events unfold over time.  It means that there is a past, a present and a future — although not always presented in a chronological order.  Just think of movies that are told through flash-backs.  In Narrative Branding we have baked in the unfolding of the narrative arc over time.  There is a dynamism in this movement through time that matches the dynamism of changes in the marketplace.  

This is the very opposite of  brand positioning, which is a static approach to marketing. In the positioning model a company holds and defends a single position.  It is meant to last for years and years and years.  “Immutable” is how Trout and Ries phrase it.  consider the practicality of that for a moment.  Is your business immutable?  Or is your business dynamic, changing and adapting to a dynamic marketplace?

Those are just 3 observations of how Aristotle has much to teach us.  Wouldn’t it be swell if everyone rushed over to their bookcase to pull down the copy of Aristotle’s Poetics?  Okay, perhaps not.  Much of this is really based on common sense and taking a really observant, non-judgmental look at human behavior.  It’s enough to think of your brand as a hit Broadway musical or the most incredible attraction at Disneyworld.

Zeitgeist and McDonald’s

Some words are just fun to say. Zeitgeist is one of them. It is also a wonderful word to use when talking about the mood of a particular time.  You buy your first MacBook and suddenly you notice all of these other people are carrying them around too.  There is something in the air. There was something magical about that place and time when several people in different places had the same idea.  It was uncanny.  It was the Zeitgeist!

Looking back to when Michael Thibodeau and I developed Narrative Branding, I can trace a couple of other people who were independently developing their own similar ideas about branding at that very same moment in time.  It was uncanny.  It was the Zeitgeist!

So I imagine that by now you are saying to yourself, what the heck does this have to do with McDonald’s?  

At the beginning of this decade McDonald’s was in very sorry shape.  Their business was falling apart and their brand was sliding down the slippery slope to irrelevance.  A few years later a remarkable turnaround had taken place.  Suddenly McDonald’s was a vigorous and profitable company with a strong brand.

We didn’t take much notice of it while it was happening.  Looking back I realize that about eight months after we publicly launched our Narrative Branding method to marketing, McDonald’s was making headlines by publicly launching their bold new approach to marketing which they called Brand Journalism.  It was uncanny.  It was the Zeitgeist!

Larry Light, who was the CMO of McDonald’s at the time, was the first chief marketing officer of a major corporation to publicly renounce the brand positioning approach to marketing. In the words of Larry Light and Joan Kiddon:

The “positionistas,” as I like to call them, are glued to the glory of an immutable, narrow, unidimensional view of a brand.  They believe that brands are simple, single-word ideas.  And once this idea is established, they believe that you cannot change people’s minds. This is wrong.  Brands are complex, multidimensional ideas, and you can change people’s minds.  McDonald’s is a good example.

This quote is taken from the new book that Light and Kiddon have written, “Six Rules for Brand Revitalization”.  It has just been published by Wharton School Publishing. It is essentially a book length case study of the McDonald’s story from the inside. And it is also persuasive evidence that companies can abandon brand positioning and actually perform much better.

Of course, it doesn’t take much detective work to see that Light and Kiddon are tweaking Trout and Ries by labeling them positionistas.  All I can say is that I wish I had come up with that word!

So there you have it.  Zeitgeist and McDonald’s.

Consistency vs. coherence in branding

“Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”  Walt Whitman 

Consistently we are lectured about the need for brands to be consistent.  They need to look the same everywhere.  They need to say the same thing everywhere.  They need to act the same every time.  The brand needs to say the same thing to all audiences.  That is one of the core principles of the  brand positioning theory.  A brand can only stand for one thing.  

In fact, in the current issue of Ad Age, Al Ries says “Almost every successful brand in the world started as a narrowly focused brand that stood for a single idea.”  And he goes on to say that brands need to narrow what they stand for.  They can stand for one thing and one thing only.

Yet 87% of marketing decision makers say that branding needs to be more flexible today because business is more dynamic and fast moving.  (This is from new research we conducted with JupiterResearch.  You can download the full study, Shifts in Marketing at

Here the brand positioning theory directly conflicts with the needs of marketers.  

Something has to give.  Should the needs of marketers bend to the theory of brand positioning?  Or should marketers look for another model of branding?

I am simplifying the matter here.  But the clear answer is that the needs of marketers must align with the branding method they are using.  That is where Narrative Branding (R) has an advantage over brand positioning.  Narrative Branding recognizes that the brand needs to evolve, to tell different parts of the brand story to different audiences.

To be clear, this post is not suggesting that brands should be contradictory.  Certainly nobody  is advocating for a brand to contradict itself.  Unless, of course, their brand is Walt Whitman or maybe even Alan Ginsberg.

A narrative approach to branding replaces the idea of “consistency” with the idea of “coherence.”  A brand needs to share its story to several audiences.  Customers, perhaps several different segments of customers.  Employees, investors, business partners.  These different strands or narrative threads must be coherent.  They need to complement each other.  They need to add up to the larger narrative of the brand.  

Certainly we do this as people.  

Consider New Year’s Eve.  Several people asked me about my New Year’s Eve, and I told each of them a different facet of that evening.  I told my sister about watching the movie, Chariots of Fire, because we both have a love of running.  To my friend Madeleine, I spoke of being home and playing Taboo and other games.  They each learned different facets of my evening.   My conversations with them were rich and engaging.  Had I told them both the same story, I would diminished myself, I would become one dimensional.  I am not as large as Walt Whitman, so I cannot afford to contradict myself.  But I am not as limited as brand positioning would have me.

The same is true for a brand.

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