Monday, October 09, 2006

Media Special for Storytelling Ability

In the college of mass communications, we have many parts. Sometimes those parts seem to have little to do with one another.

To me, however, the common thread is narrative: we tell stories.

When I was a print journalist, I told stories. I loved writing feature stories, and occasionally I had some success. There is nothing more frustrating than going back to read old clips and seeing when I missed.

In my memory, I can remember the story. The drama. The thing that made it real. But sometimes I failed to get that on paper. Maybe there was not enough time. Maybe there was not enough patience to replace a pretty good word with the absolute right word. But it makes all the difference in the world.

This weekend, Kansas City baseball legend Buck O'Neil died at age 94. That fact alone saddened my heart, but the sadness was driven home by K.C. Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski. The night that O'Neil died, Posnanski wrote one of the most moving pieces I have ever read.

Put simply, Posnanski nailed the story. He captured it all. The words came alive. With a computer keyboard, Posnanski painted a picture so vivid, the colors come to life before your eyes. It's a skill that few writers have.

It's the same principle for writing ads. Sure, we are less noble than the Fourth Estate. We sell things for a living. But you cannot sell things that people do not want. Just try.

Instead, you can offer a competing product. And today more than ever, it is the story that sells the product. Starbucks is not about coffee. It is about an atmosphere. An experience.

Leo Burnett urged advertisers to find the "inherent drama" of a product. That's a concept that is difficult for me to teach. I stand in front of my advertising class, and I preach the story. And I get blank looks. It's just Coca-Cola, they say. Where's the story?

It's hard to find, I suppose. The story is there, however. It may be hiding. And it may be deep. But it is powerful once you have a hold on it.

Along with colleagues Wendy Maxian, Tim Laubacher, and Monica Baker, I submitted a paper on this topic to the American Academy of Advertising last week. The paper involves Kevin Roberts' idea of Lovemarks, or emotional connections with brands that go beyond reason.

Our data show that consumers do make these passionate emotional connections with brands, and I argue that only narrative can put these connections in place. Advertising that tries hard to sell a single Snickers bar today is uninspired.

A brand is more than that. It's more than caramel, nougat, peanuts, and chocolate. How incredibly simple is that? Too simple. Snickers is more than that. It is the story. The story of the inattentive groundskeeper painting "Chefs" on the field.

"Not going anywhere for a while?" the ad asked.

By consistently telling the story, Snickers has become the default candy bar. In the rare occasion that I eat from a vending machine, I first look for Snickers. It is the candy bar that will hold me over until dinner.

Silly? Of course. But it's there. Snickers is a Lovemark of mine. I'm not sure it tastes the best. I know it's not the most healthy. But it's always there. Like a friend. Because I know its story.

And telling stories is a fascinating thing to do. Thanks for reading this one.


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