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I Get by with a Little Help from My Friends

Over the roughly twenty years that Jim and I have been doing this work, we have often found ourselves talking story strategy with friends who, like us, are running small businesses—a podcast producer, a local contractor, an architect, a microbrewer, a personal trainer, and lots of others. These conversations have not been organized in a systematic way like the experience of Character Camp, but we find ourselves using the same tools and drawing on the same insights. After all, the category conflict of retail (wants versus needs) is just as relevant when you are running an artisan boutique as it is for Walmart or Target. The category conflicts of coffee (special versus everyday and stimulating versus relaxing) apply to a neighborhood micro roaster as much as they apply to Starbucks.

One of the things I’ve noticed about the pandemic is that it is an amplifier and accelerator of almost everything it touches, including story. Brands, large and small, that had a firm grasp of who they were before the crisis have, in many cases, been able to double down on their story and gain a great deal of traction by showing up in character. Brands whose sense of meaning and purpose was not clear or not deeply held have sometimes appeared opportunistic and shallow. As Warren Buffett said, in a slightly different context, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you see who’s been swimming naked.”

From a purely financial point of view, many small businesses seem uniquely vulnerable in the current economic catastrophe. But from a story point of view many of these same small businesses have strengths that big brands only dream of (or remember from their youth). It’s all about knowing who you are and finding ways to express who you are in the way your business shows up during this crisis.

In that spirit, my colleagues and I were thinking about ways we could show up, and it occurred to us that we could explicitly offer to do what we’ve been doing casually all along. So, if you have a friend running a small business who could use some perspective, advice and support, send them to us. It could be a colleague who struck out on their own, an adult child, niece or nephew running a restaurant, a gym, or a landscaping service. Or it could be a non-profit whose board you serve on. There is no charge. In fact, in our business, there is never a charge for casual conversations about story and brand; we just love talking about this stuff.

We’d love to help, so just contact me or give your friend our contact information.

“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