(Warning – this post is 3,000 words, you may want to get a coffee)
Stories have always been a useful medium of communication – but the rise of social media has just made them essential. If you haven’t got a good one, you could be in trouble. Here’s why.
First the history. Before Gutenberg invented moveable type and the printing press, we didn’t have an easy way for the mass distribution of information. All communication was word-of-mouth and the story was the ‘distribution technology’ because wrapping a message in a story was a way it could be spread without losing its essence. The game of Chinese Whispers illustrates just how easily a message on its own can degenerate if it doesn’t have the protective wrapping of a story around it. Religions, of course, are the best examples of pre-Gutenberg institutions that used stories to extend their message and influence. In fact religions are about the only institutions to survive the Gutenberg revolution relatively unscathed – probably because many had taken the wise step of writing their stories down, thus making themselves ‘print ready’. Protestantism was possibly the first Gutenberg religion. Luther wrote his objections (proposition) down on one bit of paper and stuck them on a church door – essentially the first out-door ad campaign – he didn’t tell a story.
The Gutenberg revolution created a print culture. The way in which we communicated shifted away from the spoken form into the written or visual form and became wedded to a host of new distribution technologies, or media as we called them. Probably the most well-know analyst of this phenomenon was Marshall McLuhan who coined the term “the medium is the message” to describe this effect. Church door as a medium is a pretty effective message if you think about it. Interestingly, McLuhan predicted that in the future, forms of “electronic interdependence” would spell the end of print culture and mark a return to an aural/oral culture (i.e. storytelling). He basically saw a form of social media coming and called this ‘The Global Village’ (his other sound bite).
His analysis of the world as a Global Village was a tad scary:
Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [...] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [...] (Thanks Wikipedia)
Tribal drums and panic terrors – let’s hope not. McLuhan pushed his ideas about the distribution technology being more important than the content to the limit – even going so far as to suggest that the content had little effect on society — in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children’s shows or violent programming – the effect of television on society would be identical. Personally I struggle with that and I had likewise found it hard to grasp his idea that a light bulb is a form of media – until Twitter came along and I realized that Twitter (specifically a Twitter #tag) is exactly McLuhan’s light bulb – a medium that has no content of its own, but creates a social effect through the space it brings into being.
The feature of the distribution technology, which was not really examined by McLuhan, was its cost. A printing press cost a lot of money, as did further developments in distribution technology such as telephone networks, radio, TV and even the original forms of web-based communication. Access to distribution through these channels was therefore a scarce and expensive resource. Stories and storytelling had a tough time, relatively speaking, during the Gutenberg era because it was difficult to squeeze an entire story into the tight space necessary to use the expensive channels of mass communication. For a good, if slightly ‘alternative’ take on this check out Monty Python’s All England Summarised Proust sketch.
Marketing and communication was therefore not so much shaped by a print culture as a cost culture. Saying anything was incredibly expensive, therefore you had better make it short and snappy – no time for rambling stories.
One consequence of this was the rise of advertising, which is essentially the art of squeezing a lot of information into a very small space. But it wasn’t just advertising, all communication had to adapt itself to the world where publication was a scarce resource and the art of successful communication was therefore a reductive one – crunch everything down into focused messages.
The idea of what we now call a brand (rather than a product) emerged out of this environment. The organizations which took the lead in turning their products into brands were the consumer goods manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble. Apologies at this point for singling out P&G. I am simply using it/them as the case study because they are probably the best example of an organisation most finely attuned to the art of reductive communication. P&G pretty much invented modern marketing, so my attention is essentially a backhanded compliment. The philosophy of P&G (and all modern) marketing is restrictive – one-word ‘brand equities’, single key visuals etc. At its heart is the idea of the proposition – a tightly defined statement of what the brand stands for. This was the cornerstone of a marketing or communications strategy in the mass media age.
Propositions have an additional advantage. They are stick-thin model sized. You can fit lots of them in a lift. Or to put it another way – you can fit lots of propositions in a single product category. This has meant than in many categories, we have many products which are basically all the same – but you can make them appear different by tweaking the proposition and then communicating the hell out of what makes your proposition (not product) different from the proposition of the product next door. Think about it – Coke and Pepsi are basically the same at the product level, (as are New Labour and the Conservatives) but vast amounts of marketing dollars have been spent creating the illusion that these are vastly different, ‘competing’ products.
But as we have seen, the brand proposition is completely a creation of the Gutenberg, mass media, world. It is what you needed to maximize your investment in the precious resource of information. Social media changes all this because the ability to publish is no longer a scarce resource.
And so to the present. The social media revolution is all about the fact that distribution is no longer expensive and scarce. Anyone can do it, or as Clay Shirky puts it media is now – Global, Social, Ubiquitous and Cheap. What this actually means is that the link between content and a form of distribution has been broken. For six hundred years, we have been locking information up in particular forms of distribution – books, newspapers, TV programmes, websites even. These forms of distribution shaped the content – they set the house rules for the information that wished to live within them. This is what McLuhan meant (as I understand it) when he called the medium the message. He just choose to focus on the distribution side of the equation, rather than the content, probably because he rightly identified that we were all focusing on the content too much and were ignoring the fact that distribution was the hidden hand that was shaping much of it. Now that information is free to do its own thing the distribution side of the equation, and all the rules associated with it, has gone out of the window.
The information space that is being created looks very different from anything we have seen before. One thing we know about it already is that one-to-many mass messages just don’t get any traction. They sit there like a beached whale. In line with McLuhan’s predictions, we are witnessing a return to storytelling, because stories are what you need to be able to swim in this new space. A story can drive conversation in the way a proposition cannot. People can pick up a story and tell it in their own words, they can pluck bits out of it and pass it on. It has mobility – the key attribute in the world of liberated media. A single story can live and move in blog posts, tweets, Facebook pages or conversations – anywhere and everywhere. Neither does it necessarily de-grade with the telling, rather it can become enhanced. It can sometimes even get promoted from story to myth and if you are really lucky – make it to legend status.
At a more prosaic level, a story can also be a creative brief – something an organisation can task a creative agency with bringing to life.
Now comes the difficult bit. Let’s look again at P&G, since P&G is the organization most adapted to operating in the Gutenberg world (i.e. the world that is ending). P&G brands have no story attached to them that has any resonance or credibility with a consumer. They are like baubles on a Christmas tree – dazzling and highly visible on the outside, but with nothing inside. Once you look behind the 30 second window of a P&G brand you find nothing. There are no identifiable people who make or sell the product – just faceless brand managers doing a three year stint on the brand. There is no actual company taking responsibility for the product – where is the Olay or Iams company? It doesn’t exist (anymore). All you can detect somewhere in the distance, hiding over the horizon, is the faint drum-beat of the massive P&G corporate story. This is a big and powerful story that commands huge respect in the world of business and drives the way P&G operates, how it extracts leverage with retailers and media owners and how it recruits and trains its’ people. But this is a story that is deliberately hidden from consumers because, as P&G well knows, there is nothing within it as it is currently constructed, that would make a consumer feel significantly more likely to buy any of its brands – indeed it may put them off. This isn’t a mistake that P&G has made, it is the result of a conscious strategy that has pared-back everything about its brands that can’t be fitted into a 30 second slot and it accounts for why P&G has been so successful – has being the operative word.
The challenge for brands, especially mass consumer brands, going forwards is therefore not simply telling a story – it is building a story in the first place. The space behind most brand facades is frequently empty and it needs to be re-populated. How a P&G type organization might do that is difficult to determine – but it will definitely mean an end to a situation where the people that sit behind brands are just faceless brand managers who have no real connection or affinity to the product they are selling. An end to the idea of there not being an Ariel company, or a Head & Shoulders company or even a dedicated factory that makes the product. My prediction that is that in 15 years time, P&G won’t exist as an owner of brands as we currently understand it. If it continues to exist at all it can only do so as an infrastructure that will support or host a stable of brands, many of which it may not own 100 per cent and all of which will have their own corporate identity. This is because all of its brands will have to have their own story, and building that story will mean re-discovering a tangible and credible identity and divesting themselves of much of their “P&Gness”.
Every CEO therefore needs to take the issue of stories seriously, because stories, not products or propositions, are what people will want to buy and what will allow their company to engage with the social media space.
I have developed a way of looking at stories within an organization which I call a story triangle. At the top sits the corporate story – the “who we are, where we came from, what we believe in” piece. At the next layer are the sector stories – these may be product or service categories, sectors of operation etc. At the bottom are the operational stories – these may be individual products / brands or they may be specific initiatives. Successful organizations draw their power from the top and have a consistency which links all the levels of stories in their story triangle.
Apple is the classic example. The Apple corporate story is Steve Jobs himself and his philosophy about devices that users fall in love with because they look great and are easy to use. Apple’s sector stories are all about how they take this philosophy and apply it – first it was computers, then it was music players / digital music, now it is phones. And their product stories are all about reflecting the desire this creates in consumers. Think about it – every single new Apple product launch always has the accompanying story of people queuing around the block to be the first to get it. The only problem that Apple has is the extent to which Jobs himself is woven into this story. As we saw in the late 80s – take Jobs out of Apple and the Apple story degrades and the organization becomes just another tech company.
The key to developing an effective story triangle is two-fold. First you need to embed the art of storytelling within your organisation. This involves training people so that they understand how to build and tell stories. Second, you need to develop the stories themselves – something you will find it is easier to do once your people have become storytellers. This may be relatively straightforward – just simply a processes of encoding stories that are already there, albeit it they may be hiding their light under a bushel (proposition). Alternatively it may be quite difficult because an examination of your organisation’s story triangle will reveal either gaps or inconsistencies – and resolving these may require significant restructuring of the business. P&G being a case in point here.
In association with Richard Moss, a former colleague / current collaborator of mine, I have developed a product called ‘What’s the Story’ that deals with the first part of this task. It will take a group of up to 15 people and teach them the basics of storytelling by creating something we call STICKY stories. Essentially this breaks down stories into their key components and identifies what elements you need to create successful stories (i.e. stories that people tell rather than just listen to). It will also show them how to use the story triangle concept to populate their organisation with stories.
The second part, actual story development, is something you can’t necessarily do in a workshop – unless it is a workshop that involves the top management of an organisation. And even then, the risk is that you may end up with some rather challenging conclusions. It is therefore something requiring a more bespoke consultancy approach (something I am also happy to furnish). As we have seen in the P&G example, this organisation has some major inconsistencies and gaps in its story triangle that can probably only be resolved by changing the entire nature of the company and becoming a brand infrastructure or host rather than just a brand owner. This may seem a rather dramatic step to take just for the sake of a story. On the other hand you could say this is a critical step P&G needs to take if it is to move itself from being The Boss of the mass media communication age to having even the basic legitimacy to operate in the world of social media.
To make the situation worse for P&G, they are not only going to be hit by a lack of credible brand stories. P&G’s competitive advantage lies in its ability to monopolise mass media channels and ensure that this is where the battle for brand communication shall be fought. Smaller brands just cannot compete when the battle is fought upon this field. However, now media is free, this ability to set the rules of competition fading. The barriers to entry in many categories are now coming down. This doesn’t necessarily mean that new brands will emerge to challenge the mass brands, rather brands can emerge which focus much more tightly on a niche segments. Individually these may only steal a micro-share of the market, but collectively they could grasp a great chunk of it. Death by 1,000 niches I call it. But this is another story – one where a story alone is not the route to salvation.
Stories have a further advantage in that they have an application beyond how you project your organisation outwards, they can be a strategic management tool in their own right. Once you have an effective corporate story, this in itself is a strategy. You can test any number of ideas against it to see if they fit. Likewise, when your strategy is a story it is easy for it to spread through the organisation. One of the biggest management and communications challenges any business faces is ‘aligning’ employees behind a corporate strategy – but once that strategy is encoded as a story, that process is much simpler.
To put an end to this particular story – or to Yield a resolution (the ‘Y’ part of our STICKY stories acronym) – Clay Shirky (of whom I never tire of referencing) has recently characterised the problem the media faces as being journalism trapped within a burning business model. As the social media revolution rolls forward we are going to find many organizations facing a similar problem as their business models catch fire. Stories may not save the business model from the flames, although in some case they might, but they could provide the fire escape. It is therefore a good idea to start focusing on them now.