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Something to Buy Into

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about handy tools marketers can use to test their brands for latent story energy. One idea–of which I was reminded by the new Starbucks print advertising–is to ask yourself this:

Does my brand offer its customers something to buy into, or just something to buy?

What I like about this question is that it immediately separates a brand with real equity from a commodity. At the end of the day, if all you are offering your customer is a specific thing to buy for a certain amount of money, it is very difficult to develop any pricing leverage and you have no way to engage any loyalty on the part of your customers. (If you have a patent on the thing you are selling you can charge a premium as long as the patent lasts, but that’s not brand equity, that is just a temporary government-licensed monopoly.)

Of course, some stories are deeper and more compelling than others. When Walmart was a scrappy little challenger from Arkansas its story was lifeline for working families trying to get by on a budget. That story, given credibility by Walmart’s ability to bring brand name merchandise to small towns at surprisingly low prices, built a successful business and–for a while–a brand that customers across small town America felt connected to. In the years after Sam Walton died the business grew but the story got shallower until, by the middle of this decade, the only thing Walmart was asking its customers to buy into was its ability to deliver the absolute lowest price–no matter what the cost to the towns, the employees, the suppliers or the community as a whole.

In the past couple of years Walmart has once again asked its audience to buy into the idea that its size and its capabilities can be a force for good in the world. Functionally, Walmart still has to deliver low prices in order to have a relationship with its customers at all, but the meaning of its story has gone from deeper to shallower to deeper again–with dramatic consequences for the value of its brand and the success of its business.

I’m interested in what you think of this idea as a tool for uncovering some of the key story currents running through your brand.

I look forward to hearing from you.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery