President of the Bradford Dalton Group, Jeff is a former journalist with 30+ years of experience as a public relations professional.
In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, award-winning novelist and professor George Saunders presents a master’s course in literary interpretation through analysis of seven short stories by renowned Russian authors.
Reading his exegesis of Anton Chekhov’s Gooseberries was the first time I have understood how literature can communicate differently, certainly more effectively and more deeply than reportage, essays or other logically oriented, objective writing. I learned that the most important message in a story emerges from actions, not words, that tell a subconscious narrative that can be different than, even opposed to, what the words say or can say.
In other words, important messages often emerge from a “show, don’t tell” approach.
For example, in Gooseberries, two men come upon a dacha (a cottage) in the woods. They’re tired of walking in the rain and look forward to getting out of it and getting some bread and vodka in their bellies. The first thing one of the men does when he gets there takes a swim in the pool while the other waits in the house, demonstrating, as Saunders says, that the swimmer is totally self-absorbed, ignoring his friend until it’s convenient, as the action in the rest of the story supports.
This communication via action — instead of, even contra, to the surface narrative — delivers a much more powerful, more rounded, more emotional, even spiritual message than words alone could have done.
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Why not employ this discovery in marketing?
Well, you might say, it’s already being done. Product demonstration is the oldest kind of TV spot in advertising. Yes, but setting up a scene about a product with no product reference, no words — even just showing the product happening while a different script is playing on the surface — has never been done.
And I’m not talking about product placements either, which usually don’t advance the plot and are little more than scenery. Product placements help solidify the ubiquity of an established brand but they don’t motivate someone, they don’t reveal a desire to buy at an unconscious/conscious level — that’s, at the border of the unconscious, where consciousness begins working, where it’s able to see hints, ghosts and whisps from the unconscious. This is a powerful, primal connection to a brand.
How might one market at this border to the underworld? By creating and starring in a story, of course — a sequence of actions that communicates more than the actual narrative does.
I submit that Elon Musk is a prime example of selling a story to advance a business. The story, of course, is his life, which is theater. He fired his PR department yet gets more coverage — most of it positive — than any other CEO, I can think of today. He communicates verbally pretty frequently, of course, but often little more than “Watch this!” And visuals are always part of the message — from photos in tweets to otherworldly pickup trucks in the room. Most photos you see of Musk are with something he created or the place where he created it and ran it. And running it is definitely part of the story. This isn’t a startup cowboy who can’t build things.
His myth (and his companies’ myth) is the indomitable force. Something that exists because it chooses, because it creates its own reality and shares it with us. Musk simply acts — like building an entire industry on nothing but intelligence, unrelenting work and a refusal to quit. In my opinion, he’s John Galt, Tony Stark and Zarathustra rolled into one. And his story — which isn’t about his products, but about his existence — transfers to his products, which are viewed as almost mythically smart, effective and even inspiring. His story is about setting and achieving ever more difficult conquests. First online payments, then electric cars, then the ultimate conquest: space travel. It’s the American success story on the big screen — actually, billions of screens — across the globe.
Another great mythical marketing story — and another example of the founder’s commitment to action and honesty — is Southwest Airlines. The atmosphere on a Southwest flight is what it was probably like to be in the same room as cofounder Herb Kelleher — irreverent, maybe a bit sarcastic, but fundamentally kind and considerate. Herb lived large — smoking, drinking, telling jokes — but the planes always ran on time, and Southwest did honest, common-sense things that other airlines were afraid of trying, like open seating, peanuts instead of meals, flying into secondary airports and acted without regard for convention, like encouraging stewardesses and stewards to do standup acts during the mandatory safety speech. Or frankly, just telling the unvarnished truth, like the Southwest steward I recently flew with who peppered his pre-flight monologues with riffs on how awful flying is in the age of Covid.
And that’s Southwest’s story — the airline that tells the truth, no matter what. The no-BS airline.
Sure, you say, but you’ve simply described brands. Perhaps, but I guess I see a brand as strictly or predominantly a verbal creation, messages that are processed in the frontal cortex and are clearly and frequently communicated via standard symbols of headlines, copy and scripts. A story is the myth of how the company acts over time and what it acts on and the narrative that traces.
Some products don’t have a narrative because the people behind them don’t have a path, just motion. Does your company have a story or just a history? Do you need to find a path or at least a clear destination or motivation? My advice: Don’t read more business books; read literature.
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Author: Jeff Bradford, Forbes Councils Member