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Brands That Outrun Their Own Story

We’ve been thinking recently about different kinds of brand stories, and particularly about whether there are some brands whose very success causes them to outrun the story on which their growth was based.

Starbucks’ struggle to rebuild its brand is what first prompted this question. Starbucks originally promised to provide a “third place,” separate from home and work. In terms of story, what makes a third place into something really interesting is the conflict between everyday and indulgent. In its early years, the brand played with those two energies in interesting ways. The indulgent energy was conveyed by the comfortable chairs, the secret language and the implicit invitation to stay as long as you liked–and of course by the exotic new coffee drinks. The everyday energy of the story was represented by the easy accessibility of the experience and by the very idea of a simple cup of coffee.

The problem for Starbucks from a story point of view was that the very success of the company shifted the center of gravity from indulgent to everyday. By the time Howard Schultz’s famous memo was leaked to the press in early 2007, it was clear that everything the company had done to accelerate its growth–the automatic espresso machines, the range (and aroma) of food offerings, the assembly-line efficiency of the service–had transformed the story from the third place into the QSR of coffee shops. Once there was a Starbucks kiosk in my grocery store, 100 yards from the Starbucks store at the end of the mall, the everydayness of Starbucks had completely overwhelmed the indulgent energy in its story. The way the company has been struggling for almost three years to rebuild its brand suggests to us that Starbucks’ story has gotten out of balance in a way that is difficult to correct.

By contrast, during the same three-year period, Walmart has done a very creditable job of resurrecting a brand that had fallen much deeper in the hole than Starbucks. We think the difference is in the kind of story that underpins the brand. Walmart’s story, at its best, is about the conflict between winning and serving. Walmart was always an ambitious company, but it was ambitious in the service of its customers. Sam Walton’s vision was to bring the good life to small communities that had been overcharged and underserved. In the decade following Sam Walton’s death, the service energy drained out of the story, until, by the middle years of this decade, the Walmart story was all about winning for its own sake. And in the world of story, a character who is motivated by a desire to win for the sake of winning is almost always the villain.

In the past three years, Walmart has re-embraced the service energy in its story, without ever letting go of its fierce desire to win as well. Unlike Starbucks, Walmart’s size and ubiquity can actually be an asset–as long as its success is seen to be in service to something bigger than itself. That’s why the sustainability campaign has been so central to Walmart’s turnaround.

So how can Starbucks embrace its conflict in order to infuse new energy and authenticity into its story? Could it perhaps redefine indulgent in the way Walmart redefined serving? Or maybe the answer is to find a better articulation of the conflict, possibly substituting special for indulgent. Creatively, the latest Starbucks advertising and promotional work seems to be tugging in that direction.

I’m interested in what you think, both about Starbucks’ efforts to recapture the authentic energy in its story and about other brands whose success might have swept them into a blind alley in which their business has outrun their story to the detriment of both. Drop me a line if you have a moment, or post a comment.

“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