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Story Failure

Recently, I read a very interesting article in The Wall Street Journal on how “…Target Lost Its Way Under Ousted CEO Gregg Steinhafel.” The Target case is particularly ironic. Here is a brand that had, arguably, the best story in mass retail—a story that seemed to be baked deeply into the culture of the organization. The executive reins were passed to a carefully groomed successor with decades of experience at the company. Nevertheless, the new CEO was unable to keep the story alive, unable to use the story to direct a creative, energized, experienced team. In the end, he presided over a massive loss of shareholder value and lost his job in the bargain.

I fully understand that the drama at Target can be seen through many different lenses, but it seems clear that prior to the leadership change in 2008, Target’s story was the organizing principle for everything it did and that afterwards the story got a lot less clear and the brand seemed to wander as a result.

Over the years, we have come to understand that a lot of the story energy in mass retail is connected to the overarching conflict of needs versus desires. Of course, knowing the category conflict may be interesting, but it’s not enough to distinguish one brand from another. You have to be able to articulate your own particular take on the category story; otherwise, you are just waving the same flag as everybody else. In the case of Target, the story always came to life most powerfully when I heard someone say they went into Target for $20 worth of something they needed and walked out with $200 worth of stuff they couldn’t resist—at a delightfully good price. “Expect More, Pay Less” is a nice way to capture that story in a slogan, but it was Target’s deep, intuitive sense of just how to build surprise and delight into the things its customers needed that brought the brand story to life day after day.

The difficulty with keeping a story alive within an organization is that you have to be willing and able to embrace the conflict that makes the story engaging. But humans, and especially marketers, are temperamentally inclined to resolve conflicts if possible. That’s why so many marketers present their brands as a solution to a customer’s problem rather than engaging their customers with a conflict relevant to their lives.
It seems that Bob Ulrich, the CEO who built the creative, spontaneous Target brand on the back of the venerable, conservative Dayton-Hudson department store business, was comfortable living in the tension between needs and desires. But Gregg Steinhafel, the incoming CEO, seemed out to resolve the conflict. The WSJ article lists dozens of clues that his instincts, tastes, values and management style all pulled to the practical-necessity side of the story at the expense of creativity, spontaneity and desire.

We’ve seen this pattern many times. The leader of an engaging brand navigates in the thick of the conflict, drawing energy from the opposing forces as they collide around him or her. The successor powerfully embodies one of those story currents. In fact, that is usually why he or she seemed like a good candidate to take the brand forward. Once the new CEO is in charge, however, the lack of conflict drains all the energy from the story. The brand becomes about solutions that make rational sense, but the lack of story undermines the magic that made people care and gave the brand a sense of purpose.

“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