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“Win Games, Sell Tickets”

We were doing Character Camp recently for one of my favorite professional sports teams, digging hard for the truth at the heart of the story that connects the team to its fans in bad seasons as well as in good ones. In the middle of one classic improv exercise–a process that helps us get to the conflict that gives the story energy and authenticity–the head of marketing for the team looked over at me and said, “If the guys running the league could see us now, they would think we were crazy. They think of marketing as a simple formula: Win games, sell tickets.”

And I thought, wow, that describes so many massive organizations that came into their own without ever taking on marketing as a strategic capability. They all seem to think of marketing as a kind of adjunct to sales, a way to boost traffic. Walmart before Stephen Quinn is an example of an organization that used to think this way. In the last six years it has worked hard to change.

What is interesting to me is how many companies that have built leading positions in their industry by mastering operations or merchandising or engineering or sales are now scrambling to build up their marketing muscle. Some are doing it well. Many are still picking low-hanging fruit in categories in which none of the competitors is particularly proficient at identifying an authentic story and bringing it to life in a compelling way. I’m thinking of insurance, for example, or even some car brands. In advertising cars, massive amounts of money are often spent telling stories built on category conflicts, like safety-versus-freedom or fantasy-versus-reality, which generally results in entertaining ads with rather weak brand linkage.

So I thought I would put this question to you: What brands do you think are largely stuck in the win games, sell tickets era? And what brands can you think of that turn the idea on its head–what we might frame as, Win the story, win the game?

“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