Marketing, as Peter Drucker observed, was one of the two functions that alone made money for a business – all else was a cost. Thus it is PDI – Pretty Damned Important! It’s a shame, therefore, that it only does – usually – half the job. True, that half it may do spectacularly well, but polished fake diamonds with all the branding collateral imaginable are still … only fake.
One of the most important things a business needs to do to sustain profits and ensure longevity is to create a compelling narrative about itself. The ‘story’ – or narrative – is the diamond (or diamonds) that the organisation owns and which reflects on its own being. Stories can clearly convey the value proposition more effectively than any other mechanism; they differentiate your product or service from the competition; they can justify premium pricing; and finally stories heal organisations (and individuals) where damage has been done.
But generally speaking what marketing companies and internal marketing functions do is polish, present and beautifully brand a ‘false’ diamond. A fake diamond sounds like this: ‘committed to excellence’ or ‘quality first’ or ‘being the best’ or ‘we care for …’ You get the idea: cliché piled on cliché, based on a cliché-d mission statement that sounds just about like everybody else’s mission
statement. All false.
Real diamonds are found deep underground; for ‘ground’ here read ‘subconscious’. And when they are found they don’t look like diamonds – more like raw lumps of coal. Knowing where the diamonds are and how to dig for them is what most marketing companies don’t do. Why? Because this is to enter the deep world of ambiguity and uncertainty – it’s not part of the MBA course and it can’t be
done by ticking boxes or by having too systematic a process in place. And it can take time.
On the other hand, get a compelling story and the world – the customers – love you. Take Apple: their story – demonstrated in many ways – is that they are a philosophy company! They study the philosophy of aesthetics, and more particularly, the beauty of technology. Making profits is a by-product of their obsession with this beauty.
(As a sidebar, incidentally, imagining that making a profit is the primary purpose of a business is part of the cliché-d thinking that also militates against digging for real diamonds, and which leads to superficial, short-lived businesses that add little value.)
Thus, finding and extracting diamonds – stories/narratives – should be a primary function of marketing, since if it isn’t they polish and present their client well, but alas with an artificial lustre.
Remember, narrative may be regarded as a primary act of mind – which means it involves thinking and feeling and knowing – it will come from the whole being and will be self-validating. This is a tall order. But I think such a narrative will pass five tests which – in a mad world – I call SANER. So ask yourself these five questions about your own stories.
First, is your story Sincere? Does it come from the heart or is it merely manufactured in the head? Put negatively, are you trying to be a clever-clogs? Stories that speak from the heart are the ones that convince, persuade and ultimately lead people to buy into your product or your proposition.
Second, is your story Authentic? By which I mean, is it genuine, or is it, like the diamonds we discussed earlier, fake? An authentic story has what JB Phillips in another context called the ‘ring of truth’ about it and one surprising aspect of this is that it often seems incredible; but the very incredibleness of it testifies to its validity. As GK Chesterton put it: “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be credible”.
Third, is your story Noteworthy? And this means the opposite of trivial; but one point of clarification here might be: do not confuse ‘small’ with ‘trivial’ – sometimes the smallest incidents or effects can be hugely revealing in a story and add significantly to it.
Fourth, is your story Experiential? Another way of saying this might be: is it real, is it based on experience? The experiential quality of a story means more and more people can identify with it and identify with the mission. To my mind it is no accident that the greatest and most popular of all the Greek myths that have come down to is the one of Odysseus: he may not have been as great a hero as
Herakles and Theseus, who were all demi-gods in fact, but that means his story is more human, more available to us, and so we identify with him. It is no accident that everyone’s journey is now termed an ‘odyssey’ after that great and experiential (if in places legendary!) story.
Finally, is your story Relevant? This is a key criteria for storytelling and it depends on our understanding the audience for whom we are telling the story. We may tell two very different stories, one for a business audience and one for our family and friends; each may be perfect for that audience, but completely inappropriate if told to the other audience. For this we need to develop empathy with people and with the ‘tribes’ we wish to persuade.
In business, then, or in life, how good are your stories and what do you need to do to find the real diamonds? Rest assured: we all have diamonds, but very few get to polish them to their true outstanding brightness.