Subbu’s Blog: Once Upon A Strategy

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As old as civilization itself, the art of storytelling is often seen as a purely creative pursuit, yet to deliver the most effective results it relies as much on strategy and logic as it does pure emotion.

A good story is a good strategy. Strategies are a product of diligent logic and thinking, but the best of them are also inspired by imagination and creativity.

So, too, are stories.

In advertising, the popular assumption is that the job of storytelling is the domain of the creative folks. I would argue that in a collaborative commerce age, where technology is rapidly democratizing the power to share brand stories with the world, it is the strategist who is best placed to design and drive the brand narrative to create that elusive distinct edge.

The wireframe for stories — and thus for brands’ strategic storylines — was actually written by Aristotle about 2,300 years ago. He deduced that a well-crafted story could be deconstructed into six parts — plot (structure of actions), character (each character has a specific role to play in the story), explain the story background), diction (expression of the meaning of the words), melody (what you hear, a spirited factor in the pleasure of the story) and spectacle (what you see).

Aristotle’s six parts can be distilled down to three broad components: the central thought, which in advertising terms forms the ‘purpose’ (telling us why the brand exists); the plot and the characters, which form the ‘truth’ (the authentic narrative of the brand); and the diction, melody and spectacle, which form the ‘action’ (the day-to-day acts the brand performs to bring the story alive).

Any brand that has achieved breakthrough success has displayed a fundamental understanding of the interlocked nature of all three tenets. Take, for example, the brands Paper Boat and Under Armour. The ‘purpose’ of Paper Boat, the phenomenally successful Indian drinks company, is to connect people with old memories by bottling the nostalgic tastes of their childhoods. The ‘truth’ behind this purpose, the brand discerns, is that today’s charged and fast-paced lifestyles mean that generations who grew up in, say, the 1980s or ’90s, yearn for slower, simpler times. It taps into this yearning through ‘actions’: creating cartoon drawings of people’s memories; gathering collections of ‘games we played’ and ‘things we did’; and making evocative videos like ‘Hope, the boat’, the story of a small home-made paper boat.

Under Armour, meanwhile, uses the same storytelling techniques in a completely different way. The American sportswear brand, which launched in India this year, is driven by the ‘purpose’ to relentlessly overcome obstacles and become winners in the field. An underdog brand compared to giants such as Nike and Adidas, its ‘truth’ is reflected in its partnerships with athletes who most others wouldn’t or didn’t draft in the first round. The ‘action’ comes in plenty — signing Misty Copeland, the star dancer who faced many obstacles en route to success, for example; or, most recently, Leonard Fournette, who survived Hurricane Katrina when he was 10 years old and has gone on to become an NFL star, despite battling serious injury.

Both these brands have the language of storytellers at their hearts and not the language of accountants. While a brand’s story has to deliver the intended financial results, the voice that gives it structure and endurance must be that of a storyteller. This, in fact, is the most important task of all.

(This article was first published in Campaign Asia Pacific)