I had the pleasure of catching the Fleetwood Mac reunion show in Columbus, OH last fall. With the classic Mac lineup back in action for the first time since the '90's, it was everything I could have wanted in a Fleetwood Mac show. The Mac had long been on my bucket list. Growing up in the '80's, I was mesmerized by Stevie Nicks; she was my first schoolboy crush, and I'd drop whatever I was doing to watch her twirl around in the "Gypsy" video on MTV. Lately I've been revisiting the band on YouTube and came across this rare jammed-out performance of "Rhiannon" captured on a Midnight Special show in 1976. Wait for the band to begin freaking out at the 3:00 mark.
One of the first reader questions arising from my recent article on the dangers of McStorytelling was the obvious one: “Okay, smart guy: if McDonald’s is an example of poor brand storytelling, then give us an example of a company who does it right.”
Fair enough. First, some ground rules. When we talk about brand storytelling, we’re talking about far more than the brand’s marketing materials, television commercials, web site, or social media presence. I’d argue, in fact, that traditional marketing and advertising activities are the least essential component of your brand story. Why? Because it’s the easiest part to fake. Anybody can pay an agency thousands (or millions) of dollars to craft a marketing campaign. If that marketing campaign doesn’t reinforce what your customers already know about you through the brand experience, however, then the campaign will fail on the core storytelling components of sincerity, consistency, and resonance. In my previous article, I argued that the McDonald’s “Signs” campaign, while sincere in its conception, failed on the core story elements of consistency and resonance.
For an example of a company that excels at all three elements of brand storytelling, consider Amazon. Forget for a moment Amazon’s inability to turn a profit, its questionable labor practices, and its strong-arming of publishers, and focus on the story Amazon tells to its customers. Chances are, you can articulate Amazon’s story without much prompting: Amazon puts the customer first in everything it does.
How do we know this story? Amazon does little to no advertising, after all; other than occasionally promoting its latest device, you would be hard pressed to recall the last time the company advertised through traditional media. And yet Amazon dominates online retailing, and poses a significant and lasting threat to traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. Amazon’s story is not only central to its success; I’d argue that it’s the primary reason for the company’s success.
Amazon’s story begins with its storyteller: CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos has been telling Amazon’s story since he started shipping books out of his garage in Bellevue, WA in 1995. This Bezos quote sums up Amazon’s story in a single sentence: “The most important single thing is to focus obsessively on the customer. Our goal is to be earth’s most customer-centric company.”
In his book “Start With Why,” author Simon Sinek details how successful companies define their reason for existence—their “why”—well before they get to the “how” and the “what” of their business model. Customer-centricity is Amazon’s “Why.” Jeff Bezos articulated this “why,” and then built a company to demonstrate it.
In a storytelling approach to brand building, we would call the “why” your “thesis statement”—your brand’s core message. Articulation of your thesis statement is but the first step in telling your story. To demonstrate the sincerity of his story, Bezos spent the next two decades incorporating the message in every aspect of his business. From its low prices, to its free returns, to its recommendation engine, to its one-click online ordering process, to its free shipping to Amazon Prime members, Amazon continually and consistently delivers on its brand promise. The company is famous for its data-driven approach to improving the customer experience, even conducting A-B tests on its web site font sizes to deliver the best online experience it can.
As the company has branched out from its retailer roots to develop its own devices and deliver streaming media to its Prime members, it has maintained focus on demonstrating its core thesis. The company developed the Amazon Kindle to make downloading and reading e-books easier for its customers. It has developed its own tablets and smart phones not because it needed or wanted to compete head-to-head with Apple and Android, but rather to make it easier for its own customers to purchase, download, and stream Amazon content.
Amazon also continues to add benefits to its Prime membership program such as free streaming movies, television shows, and music. The company has landed with both feet into original television and film production. It has even developed a proprietary line of diapers and baby wipes exclusively for Prime members. With as many as 50 million Amazon Prime members paying the company $99 per year for the Amazon experience, Bezos’s company has likewise achieved that elusive element of resonance in its story—it has demonstrated sincerity and consistency in its story so well that its customers are willing to pay for the privilege of living it.
Perhaps the most telling proof in Amazon’s commitment to its brand story is that it puts the needs of its customers before that of shareholders. Every company claims to be customer-centric, but few companies indeed are so customer-centric that they’re willing to risk shareholder attrition by trading short-term profits for long-term customer relationships. But that’s precisely the message Bezos delivered to shareholders in an April, 2013 letter outlining the company’s long-term vision. Money quote:
“I think long-term thinking squares the circle. Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.”
That, folks, is customer-centricity in a nutshell. More recently, Amazon has suffered share price declines, as some investors have grown tired of taking a back seat in Amazon’s relentless quest for customer satisfaction. Far from getting spooked enough to change his strategy, however, Bezos instead responded to investor concerns in an earnings call by stating, "As we get ready for this upcoming holiday season, we are focused on making the customer experience easier and more stress-free than ever.”
Bezos has succeeded by building his company around a sincere, consistent, and resonant brand message. Amazon is a first-class example of brand storytelling—and it didn’t require a clever Super Bowl commercial to deliver that message to its customers.
Rick Ferguson is principal and managing director for Phabulousity, a brand storytelling consultancy based in Cincinnati, OH. Interested in having us tell your story? Hit us up here.
Here's the latest trailer for Marvel's The Avengers: The Age of Ultron, premiering May 1. I particularly enjoy James Spader's oily-voiced Ultron. The boy and I will be chowing down on some popcorn on opening night.
Today the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of King v. Burwell, the outcome of which could, according to some analysts, result in the end of Federal subsidies for recipients of health insurance under Obamacare, which in turn may cause the legislative foundation of the system to collapse. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, that millions of people—around 9 million, according to government estimates—may suddenly find themselves unable to afford health insurance should give you pause.
If you find the tortuous legal arguments for and against Obamacare brain-rattling, you’re not alone. The best summation I've found of what’s at stake in the case comes courtesy of Emily Bazelon in today’s New York Times. Money quote:
If the plaintiffs prevail, the federal government will not be able to provide subsidies to anyone buying health insurance through a federally-run exchange. Many of those nine million people would presumably pull out of the exchanges, driving up the prices for whomever is left, and the exchanges could collapse. That’s what is concretely at stake in this case.
The crux of the case rests on whether the court decides that the IRS is allowed to grant health insurance subsidies through the Federal exchanges, which are currently insuring citizens in those 34 states that opted out of setting up state-run exchanges, or only in states that are already operating their own exchanges. The justices’ interpretation of the wording in the Affordable Care Act is key; if they interpret the language literally, then they may rule that the Federal exchanges are disallowed under the law as written; if they interpret the language broadly, then the court will effectively endorse the IRS interpretation of the law.
Whether your reaction is "OMG!" or “Good riddance,” you should care about the outcome. How will the court decide? Reading SCOTUS tea leaves is generally as easy as predicting the phases of the moon, particularly since the Court has become a political battleground, with the Antonin Scalia-led wing typically squaring off against the wing led by progressive hero Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Reporting on today’s oral arguments, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern argues that Justice Anthony Kennedy, so often the swing vote in the Court’s liberal-versus-conservative seesaw, once again finds himself the fulcrum:
“If the Supreme Court struck down the federally facilitated exchanges, Kennedy mused, that would put extreme pressure on the states to set up their own, raising a ‘serious constitutional problem. In order to avoid such a problem, Kennedy seemed to suggest, the court should side with the government and permit the federally facilitated exchanges to continue. Alternatively, Kennedy implied that even if Congress did intend to force states to set up their own exchanges, the court should strike down that provision to protect the federally facilitated exchanges. Finally, Kennedy mused that Congress could not have intended to coerce state legislators to set up their own exchanges, knowing such coercion would be unconstitutional.
Other analysts, meanwhile, think Kennedy is more likely to vote against the ACA, which leaves Chief Justice John Roberts as the swing vote. Will the Chief Justice save Obamacare's bacon once again? Only Roberts's conscience knows for sure. Meanwhile, conservatives who hope for a plaintiff outcome may find themselves in “Careful what you wish for” territory. As the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan points out, should the plaintiffs prevail, those 9 million people who will suddenly find themselves without health insurance may blame those Republican governors who refused to set up state-run exchanges:
“Most people who will be affected by this case do not realize they will be. According to a January poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 56 percent of Americans say they have heard 'nothing at all' about King v. Burwell. In fact, most people do not know what kind of exchange their state uses, which suggests that these people might be blindsided by the ruling.”
Polls repeatedly show that, even as a majority of citizens disapprove of Obamacare in toto, individual provisions of the law enjoy broad popularity. Political fallout from a government defeat in the SCOTUS ruling may, in fact, find GOP representatives in red states scrambling to pass legislation to save Obamacare for those millions of voters affected by a plaintiff’s ruling—thereby ensuring that Obama’s signature legislative achievement remains the law of the land. This, friends, is the definition of irony.
The Court is set to issue a ruling on the case in June. Stay tuned.
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to regulate the Internet as a public utility, upholding the principle of "Net Neutrality” and thereby ensuring that the internet won’t become a sleek autobahn for well-heeled content providers and a goat path for everyone else. How you feel about this ruling falls generally along three possible responses.
The optimist’s view: The FCC’s ruling represents a victory for grassroots activists who demanded free and unfettered access to the internet. It was a rare, welcome victory for the “little guy” over broadband providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, who wanted to turn the internet into a pay-for-play cash machine. This quote from Even Greer, campaign director for the activist group Fight the Future, in a recent New York Times article sums up the optimist's view:
“This [ruling] shows that the Internet has changed the rules of what can be accomplished in Washington.”
The pessimists view: The FCC’s ruling was the result of corporate pressure applied by such behemoths as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, the interests of which just happened to align with those of the little guys. If Net Neutrality didn’t stand to directly impact the bottom lines of these large corporations, they wouldn’t have thrown their lobbying muscle behind it, and the principle might have been as dead as fried chicken. This view is perhaps best summed up by Gawker’s Alex Pareene:
“We have net neutrality for the same reason that copyright terms will be extended indefinitely forever and the Defense Department will keep being forced to buy incredibly expensive planes that don't actually work: Because a large industry had a strong opinion on the subject.”
The libertarian view: The internet isn't broken, and the FCC’s ruling represents unconscionable government meddling in free enterprise that will stifle innovation and harm consumers. This statement from Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s Senior Executive Vice President-External and Legislative Affairs, sums up the libertarian view:
“We will hope that other voices of reason will emerge, voices who recognize that animosity, exaggeration, demonization and fear-mongering are not a basis on which to make wise national policies.”
Rule of thumb: Whenever one side of a debate accuses the other side of “demonization and fear-mongering,” you may rest assured that the accusers are fully aware that their position is untenable. That the libertarian view is suspect should be obvious. Given that the vast majority of American consumers have only a single choice of broadband providers, and that the United States has fallen behind other developed countries in both broadband speed and affordability, lack of regulation has demonstrably not resulted in more innovation and choice for consumers. If anything, the ruling will force broadband providers to actually compete for consumers on features and price, rather than extort content providers for access to the fast lane.
But whither the broadband companies? Will Title II enforcement, a rule that was designed to regulate Ma Bell back in horse-and-buggy times, really stifle innovation and turn the internet into the connected equivalent of an IRS audit? Typical of the naysayers is this May 2014 piece by Anna-Maria Kovacs, which argues that, because the smart phone killed home phone service, which is regulated, so too will regulation kill the internet. Money quote:
“Consumers are fleeing [home phone service] in droves. In 1996, when they had no other choice, 94 percent of American households relied on [the home phone] as their sole means of telecommunications. Today, fewer than 5 percent do so. That is not surprising. There are things regulators do well, but innovation is not one of them…regulations that were designed for a rotary phone connected to a 64 kilobit switched-access line would be disastrous.”
But no one is expecting the FCC to enforce Title II down the line—FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is already on record as stating that the commission won’t regulate prices, for example. Kovacs argues that deregulation has spurred broadband investment, and that US consumers thus enjoy superior connectivity to, say, those unrepentant socialists in Europe. It may be true that the US has invested more heavily in broadband, but that investment hasn’t resulted in lower prices or faster speeds for consumers; quite the opposite. As this New York Times piece points out:
“Downloading a high-definition movie takes about seven seconds in Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris, and people pay as little as $30 a month for that connection. In Los Angeles, New York and Washington, downloading the same movie takes 1.4 minutes for people with the fastest Internet available, and they pay $300 a month for the privilege...”
What deregulation has spurred is high prices, lack of choice, and rampant consolidation. Does Kovacs or any other broadband apologist really believe that the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner, for example, will result in anything other than higher prices and poorer service? Absent regulation, Comcast is already arguably the most hated corporation in the country. Will overturning the FCC’s ruling suddenly turn them into Apple?
So am I an optimist on net neutrality, or a pessimist? The truth certainly lies in the middle. No one believes that, in supporting the FCC's ruling, Amazon, Facebook, and Google have anything but their own selfish interests in mind. Did the lobbying efforts of these giant corporations turn the tide for Net Neutrality? Of course. In other news, the sun rose today. But we can’t simply dismiss the impact of those four million people who petitioned the FCC in favor of neutrality. President Obama heard them, at least, which is why he voiced support for the principle prior to the vote.
No one will ever accuse Amazon, Google, and Facebook of altruism. It’s helpful to remember, however, that even these gargantuan corporations were once themselves scrappy upstarts that prospered precisely because they enjoyed unfettered access to the interwebs. By enshrining Net Neutrality as the law of the land, the FCC is ensuring that the next Google enjoys the same advantages as the current one.
Still, Net Neutrality advocates can hardly rest on their laurels. The FCC has yet to propose remedies for the broadband industry; toothless enforcement is still possible. Republican legislators are already crafting legislation designed to block the ruling. And the issue will soon fall to the courts, as broadband providers sue the government to prevent enforcement of the ruling. It therefore remains vitally important that those millions of voices continue to be heard on this issue. The internet is a public trust, as crucial to commerce in this century as the interstate highway system was to commerce in the last one. In this instance, I’ll stand with the optimists.
I was pleased and gratified to read the responses to my previous post on McDonald's recent "Signs" ad (if you missed the original article, you can find it here). The comments were varied and interesting enough that I thought it might be fruitful to parse a few of them in a follow up post.
Reader responses on the merits of the McDonald's ad leaned toward the "agreed with me" response, with many readers agreeing that the ad seemed inconsistent with their daily experiences with the brand. This reader, for example:
"I believe it was Marshall Mcluhan, in his book "The Image Makers" who wrote, "The medium IS the message." The medium, in the case of McDonalds, is much more than any electronic outlets which purvey their message. It is the person behind the counter who takes your order. It's the building and grounds you walk into, or drive through to get your order. It is, in short, all of the people and things which touch you in the course of your doing business with them."
"So many companies forget that culture and brand are intertwined. Ultimately the customer experience dictates how they think about you and with social media channels (unlike in the past) how a customer thinks about you is easily shared and magnified."
This reader thinks I may have coined a phrase:
"Some people believe in their stories, however, they fail to align their behavior with their stories. I guess we have a new term for that type of story - a McStory."
A reader highlights the importance of trust as an essential story element:
"[The McDonald's ad] is a prime example of trying to piggyback storytelling onto a shaky trust platform. Storytelling and content precede trust and contribute to it, but they do not create it by itself. If trust isn't rock solid, stories will undermine it better and quicker than anything else can...Rather than this story, McDonald's would be better served spending its money on addressing the fundamental reasons why people are turning away. Then, way down the track, they can have the luxury of telling stories."
While this reader, a software User Interface programmer, makes a compelling connection between brand stories and UI design:
"I was recently thinking something similar about user interfaces. You can't fix a flawed UI by grafting on another set of pretty pixels, not if the flaws come from not understanding customer needs in the first place. User interfaces today are in many (most!) ways an extension of marketing. We build these huge apps with so many features, and then graft on a navigation scheme that reveals the features in all their snarled, hierarchical glory to make the sales pitch easier. It's UI as slide deck...The culture of "build a feature and they will come" is entrenched."
A few readers wrote in to take McDonald's to task:
"McDonald's...business model does not allow for quality food. Being a publicly traded purveyor of fast food, there is nothing they can do to improve the quality or sourcing of their food.[The company] has forever lost customers who watch what they eat. There is too much information out there."
Other readers, however, commented to defend the company:
"The 'Signs' story shows me how McDonald's views themselves. It's a great company with a great, customer sensitive product line. It was very successful."
While one reader pointed out that the ad was just one piece of the company's rebranding effort:
"While I agree with the importance of holding a consistent line between the reality and the story, this is just one ad of a huge campaign to try and re-build the damaged brand. The company has made it clear that there will be initiatives to transform the fundamentals of the business. This is ad is just the start, so I believe it's unfair to judge the brand on the basis of just this. Let's check back in six months and see what progress McDonald's has made."
One reader accused critics of the ad of taking easy shots:
"I think there are certain companies (Wal-Mart would be another) that are trendy to slap. This article starts by throwing stones: 'more than just purveyors of empty calories.' even the comments attached to this story show that people are not fans of the company, but continue to use it (my kids love the Happy Meals). Maybe this campaign failed because it wasn't very good, maybe it failed because people didn't buy in, but in reality I can make an argument that McDonald's is a sturdy member of [these] communities and offers a product people have enjoyed for decades...not sure why that is a negative-- even if they are not hitting the heights they have in the past."
And finally, a few readers pointed out the obvious point that I missed in the original article:
"This [ad] created questions. But in the end, we watched and are talking about it."
A few readers also challenged me to name examples of companies who are successfully telling brand stories sincerely, consistently, and with resonance. Look for exploration of that topic in a subsequent post. And as always, thanks for reading.
Please enjoy these colorful sea creatures (h/t Kottke):
Have a comment? Email me!
As if we needed any more proof that consumers are concerned about privacy only so long as it doesn't cost them money or time to protect it: The Wall Street Journal reports that AT&T, which tracks users' browsing history through its fiber-optic internet service, allows consumers to opt out of browser tracking by paying an extra $29 a month. Sounds like a deal, right? Not according to the Atlantic's Greg Ferenstein, who reports that few AT&T customers pay for the service. Ferenstein quotes a TechCrunch report to argue that privacy is essentially a 20th Century invention:
Privacy was not an issue in hunter-gather societies, because it wasn't even a possibility. “Privacy is something which has emerged out of the urban boom coming from the industrial revolution,” explained Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf at a Federal Trade Commission event in 2013. "Privacy may actually be an anomaly."
Consumers' apparent disregard for the sanctity of their personal information shouldn't surprise; to paraphrase John Oliver, Apple could insert the entire text of Mein Kampf into iTunes' Terms & Conditions and everyone would still click "Accept." Does our ancient-yet-modern disregard for privacy mean that marketers can just track whatever they want, and sell the data to whomever they want, and skip along merrily down the road? Quoted in eWEEK, technology analyst Ken Hyers cautions that consumers may soon wake up:
"I believe that the balance between information collected and consumers' benefit from this collection, over the last couple of years, has shifted dramatically in online companies favor," said Hyers. "And I believe that there is a danger that the consumer will begin to benefit less from this ongoing shift." We've reached a point, Hyers believes, where "regulations governing how this information is collected and used, including explicit and easy-to-understand information about exactly what is collected, are necessary."
How can marketers continue to collect information while acting responsibly? Best practice in online data management calls for transparency in the value exchange: Make explicit what data you're collecting, and make explicit how the consumer will benefit by giving up said data. Everybody's happy!
As for me, I'm an open book. I'll tell you anything--as long as there's something in it for me.
Have a comment? Hit me up.
Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.