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Who we are in crisis is who we are

Trying to reschedule projects, conduct meetings by video-conference and deal with getting my freshman daughter home from a college that is suddenly shutting down, I’m hit with an unpleasant sense of déjà vu.

Nineteen years ago, my daughter was just a baby, as was my newborn company. In 2001, Character was a feisty start up, trying to “change the world” of marketing through story. Then, 9/11 happened and literally changed the world out from under us all. In the immediate aftermath, the brands and businesses we worked with were thrown off their footing. They had a million immediate fires to put out, but looming behind that was a larger problem. How to move forward.

Many, if not most of our clients were paralyzed with worry about saying the wrong thing, taking the wrong tone or communicating the wrong message to an audience reeling from loss and dealing with unwelcome change. Their instinct was to try to research what the audience wanted to hear and how they wanted to hear it so that the brand wouldn’t make a mistake.

In the meantime, there was a lot of awkward silence.

Over the twenty years we’ve been working on brand stories, one of the principles we’ve seen demonstrated over and over again is that it is impossible to connect with your audience in a meaningful way until you understand who you are. We have met many smart marketers with great insight about their customers and a somewhat shallower sense of who their brand is. In a story, the only way anyone’s true character is revealed is by watching how they deal with adversity, hardship and loss. We all intuitively understand this model, not just because we’ve seen it play out in every powerful story, ever, but also from real life. Conflict and adversity are tests of who we are.

So, as you consider how your brand will respond to the difficulties and hardships of quarantine, and ultimately how it will deal with the consequences and communicate in the aftermath, understand that your audience experiences your brand as if it were a character. The world’s brands are about to “be themselves” harder than they have had to in a long time, and people will be paying attention. What do you want this test to reveal to your audience about who your brand really is, what it believes in and what it values?

“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