“Narrative Branding”? C’mon, who are you kidding?

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I had a bad day at the office just before the holiday.  Firstly, I stumbled upon the Charlie Rose interview with Michael Crichton, which really turned my stomach.  I know there’s a load of maddness in this world, but, as it seems is his habit, Michael in his latest book “Next” has lifted the lid on a whole can of worms about American universities, “ownership” of diseases, patents and genetic research that drives a coach and horses through anybody’s idea of civil liberties and a whole lot more.  More on this later.

The other thing that had me levitating was a piece by Danielle Blumenthal that draws attention to the Verse Group and their terminally (if there’s any justice in this world) stupid attempt to own a new idea on branding that is neither new nor an idea.  They call it their “Narrative Branding” methodology and if it were not for the fact that it’s way behind the times and very muddled it might have been worth the effort I put into trying to get to the bottom of what they are on about.

To save all of you the time I will summarise.  Verse have issued a “white paper” (isn’t it a pity that people like this have devalued the term “white paper”?) that references a study by the Advertising Research Foundation (please bear with me, but I’m trying hard to be precise in explaining who said what).  In their “white paper” Verse say:

We actively participated in the taskforce [estabished by ARF] during that time and agree with the conclusions and implications, particularly the statement, The findings of this project require us to completely rethink how advertising works.” And rethinking advertising isn’t even the half of it. The findings shake the very bedrock upon which advertising, branding and marketing as a whole are built.

There’s a load of confusion in their use of terms including “marketing” and “advertising” throughout the paper, but their basic premise is that until now the world has “positioned” brands by associating them with a single idea/property/value. 

Twenty or so years after the rest of us accepted it as common wisdom, ARF and Verse have “discovered” that brands have more to them than this – “Shake the very bedrock upon which …” who are they kidding here? – and they have invented an approach to “branding” (actually they say “branding” but only talk about communication) that does away with the single idea and replaces it with a sort of communication by holistic osmosis approach, which they call “narrative branding” – there’s enough wooly thinking here to knit sweaters for the entire third world!

Boiled down, their main thrust seems to be that “positioning” is wrong and “Narrative Branding” is right, but I am sure we all recognise this is bollocks!  As Danielle points out, everyone already knows that the two, far from being mutually exclusive, are inseparable partners in the brand communication formula.  In fact it takes a whole lot more than this. 

Just to try to clear up some of the missterminology in this report.

  • “Positioning” is what we do when we identify something relative to other “landmarks”. 
  • “Narrative” is explaining something in the context of a story (ideal for a complex and emotional thing like a brand).

 Actually, I suspect from what they say, that Verse/ARF may actually mean “proposition” not “positioning” all along – their nomenclature is pretty odd at times. 

The thing is, when you are developing a brand strategy you have to have a number of things straight and communicate them all.  Apart from “positioning” (which we have already covered), there’s “proposition” which is the promise you make to your target of how membership of your brand community will transform/enrich their life.  Then there’s “brand character”, which is really what I think Verse are getting their knickers in a twist about.  This is more emotional, right-brain – the kind of stuff that makes you like your friends. 

I don’t want to replicate a Full Effect Marketing seminar here, but as concisely as possible – Once you have a brand model (in my case nine coordinates or parameters) you can produce a development strategy, which is about how you bring that to life.  Part of that is communication.  That’s communication on every level, internal and external, not just advertising and especially not just TV advertising, which is all that Verse seem to talk about.  We all know this already, but the last hurdle to its adoption is traditional businesses structure (not communications) and the world is working on the solution (I call it New Model Marketing).

Verse (or is it ARF) claim starting “discoveries” with the sensitivity of a cheap tabloid and a naivety that makes you wonder what rock they have had their head under for the last twenty years.  One of many is that advertising that uses narrative is better than advertising that doesn’t – Doh!  Of course it is!  They don’t say what metrics they are using to establish “effectiveness” but narrative advertising is effective in building relationships with brands because (if it’s any good) it communicates more facets of the brand personality or character than single-issue (what they call “positioning” advertising, but isn’t) advertising does. 

I have so many issues with this paper that I couldn’t possibly cover them all here and frankly the whole thing is so ridiculous that its not worth bothering, but it’s maybe worth making a few key points. 

  • People buy brands, not products, so in the communication hierarchy you promote your products as representative of your brand and its values, not the other way around.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t lead a communication with your product, which is a different concept altogether.
  • Brands are communities, they are multi-faceted, but they do carry an inherent promise that by joining them your life will be transformed, fulfilled or enriched in some way.  Branding, or “brand development” is about the process of understanding, defining and delivering that promise and communicating it is just one aspect of the process.  You don’t build a brand by telling everyone its great, you build a brand by making it actually great.
  • Brands are adopted by people as representative of some facet or facets of their personality (Maslow et al – I am what I wear, buy, drive etc.).  Its like choosing the district where you live, supporting a particular football team, having a trophy wife (or husband) you can’t always put your finger on why you feel the way you do about it (because its complex and emotional), but it just feels right.  Brands are the “button badges” of the current era.
  • Narrative advertising isn’t really the issue either.  Narrative is just a style of execution or communication idea.  Part of the brand development process involves communicating a promise (whatever execution style you choose) consistantly across the plethora of communications routes  – that’s integrated marketing communications.  When that in turn is backed up by delivery of the promise it’s integrated marketing.  So we don’t need another definition thanks, we have it all covered.

The ARF report and the Verse white paper neither change nor reveal anything.  The report just confirms stuff that we already know and very basic stuff at that.  The use of narrative in communication is tried, tested and universally adopted, although some are better at it than others and too many fail miserably.  The issues are executional not conceptual.

Examples of UK narrative advertising/marcoms campaigns, between them spanning the last twenty years are BT (their Broadband story) and The old OXO (beef stock cubes) campaign, both of which use stereotypical families as a metafor for their brand.  To some extent both are examples of integrated communications strategy as well. 

Because we know all of this stuff already though, I’m struggling to see what the point of the research was and why Verse should want to nail their colours to this particular mast, unless they are completely out of ideas, which, because ideas are their job, rather means that they have shot themselves in the foot.  What makes me mad though is the thought of what this three year research project must have cost and the fact that there are companies like Verse who think this kind of stuff is where it’s at and expect anybody to take this or them seriously.

Footnote:  Throughout this piece, each time I have typed “ARF” it brings to mind a snippet of poetry by John Lennon that goes …

Arf, Arf, he goes, a merry sight
Our lttle hairy friend
Arf, arf upon the lampost bright
Arfing round the bend.
Nice dog! Goo boy,
Waggie tail and beg,
Clever Nigel, jump for joy
Because we’re putting you to sleep at 3 of the clock, Nigel.

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One response to ““Narrative Branding”? C’mon, who are you kidding?

  1. Just came across this. I violently agree.

    And I like the position/proposition language.

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