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In a Story, Everything’s Strategic

Strategy is one of those fat words that seem to carry so much meaning–or maybe so many meanings–that the word starts to feel less and less useful. I used to think that strategy was about picking which battles to fight and that tactics was about how to fight a particular battle. That definition sounds pretty clear, but applying it can be tricky. After all, if you lose the battle, that’s a strategic failure, even if the loss was triggered by a tactical choice that seemed inconsequential at the time.

We recently posted an essay about the decline of Target over the past few years (Story Failure). There were a number of strategic initiatives that failed during that time–the crash of the website during the Missoni launch, for example, or the expansion into Canada, which has so far cost the company $1.6 billion. And then, of course, there was the massive breach of credit-card data last fall. Most marketers would not consider the processing of payments strategic unless the system fails. Which just underscores my problem with that original definition of strategy.

Some years ago, I went to a summer program at Stanford Business School, where the professor teaching the strategy module offered a different definition, one that I found both frustrating and useful at the same time. He said that, after years of wrestling with the question, he had come to the conclusion that the only meaningful synonym for the word strategic is consequential. From this point of view, any choice can be strategic if it ends up having a decisive impact on the outcome of an important initiative or operation. The problem, of course, is that you never know which choices are going to be strategic until it’s too late.

I was discussing this conundrum with my partner, Jim, and he pointed out that story works differently than war or science in this regard. In the war metaphor, a tactic is less important than the overall strategy–until it’s not. In the science metaphor, the hypothesis is more important than the research methodology–until some seemingly minor glitch in the methodology undermines the validity of the conclusion. In a good story, however, every choice is strategic. That is to say, every action and every word of dialogue must lead the audience to the meaning of the story. Everything the storyteller does that does not help to make the meaning clear necessarily makes it muddier.

It’s the same as saying that everything a brand does either adds value to the equity bank or spends it. What I love about story–as distinct from war or science–is that you don’t have to wait until the battle is over to decide what’s really important. Story provides an organizing principle, in a way that the human brain is very well tuned to discern, for determining what is in character for a brand and what is not. When you use story as a strategic tool for decision making, whatever you do–the products you develop, the promotions you offer, the advertising you place–is more likely to be in character with the brand. Your customers will have an easier time discovering the meaning of the brand, that discovery will lead them to feel connected to it, and that connection may even lead them to forgive some of your failures as long as they can see that the effort was in character with the brand in the first place.

“For B2B businesses, Character is a powerful tool. I have used Character three times in my leader marketing roles, 2x were in B2B businesses. The Character work was the foundation of a transformation in product innovation/commercialization, rebranding, M&A, sales growth, and employee engagement. Character’s work helped us take dead brands and make them relevant again and helped us establish lesser-known brands with high share in a B2B market. What’s so unique is that you don’t create something that the ‘marketing talking heads’ think the company needs, you use the history, culture and DNA that is already part of the company to bring out the true story that is unique to only your brand. The Character team is so special, genuine, and has the perfect mix of creative and business knowledge to lead cross-functional executives through this process. ”
—Melissa Minihan, Head of Digital Commerce & Marketing, Veritiv Corporation

“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

“Character’s approach to brand building is unlike any other in the business. Jim and his team use the timeless truths of human storytelling to unlock story potential and connect deeply with brand audiences. I’ve worked with Character throughout my career, and my experience with Tabasco was as fascinating, inspiring, and productive as ever. 

Character worked with our team not only to help us re-examine and re-articulate the elemental truths of our iconic global brand but also to develop and apply practical tools that make the brand story framework user-friendly for our entire organization. 

I whole-heartedly recommend Character to any brand marketer who is looking to make intuitive and durable connections with their consumer.”

Lee Susen, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Tabasco / McIlhenny Company