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Stories of Fear and Stories of Hope

Four days after the murder of George Floyd, my community was still in a lot of pain. Personally, I was experiencing a kind of emotional exhaustion which, I get, is not a big deal under the circumstances. I wanted to get to work—a friend had just taken the head marketing position at a big retail brand, and I was excited about helping him gather his team and hit the ground running—but I could not get myself to sit down at my computer and start. I had my coffee; I ate my high-protein breakfast; I tried my meditation routine…nothing. By the time I arrived at work (by which I mean the daily Zoom conference with Jim, Sara and Wayne) I was feeling even more worn down and unable to move forward.

We started talking about what was going on and how we might best affect some positive change, including how we might advise our clients to express the stories of their brands in an environment of protest and pandemic. I would love to report that we came up with a single, simple approach that every well-intentioned brand could use to connect with their customers right now. Sadly, it didn’t go that way. In fact, the discussion was foundering on the rocks of our despair, anger and frustration, when Jim suggested that we do what we always advise our clients to do: start by looking to our own story first. How should we show up based on our own identity and purpose? What do we uniquely have to say about how to live in a world torn by such strife?

The essence of our practice is a shared understanding that a story is powerful to the extent that you believe it. That’s the meaning at the heart of our story. But what I saw, to my dismay, is that the story running in my head that morning—that I could no longer expect that the future would be better than the past—was a story powered by fear. That’s not a story I wanted to make more powerful through my belief, but looking around at my world, trying to derive meaning from what I was experiencing, all I could seem to come up with was essentially, abandon hope, all ye who enter here. It comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy where it is the slogan inscribed on the Gates of Hell.

That caught me up short and forced me to question how I got here. I realized then that stories of fear are precisely what Mr. Trump has been trading in for the last four years. And more important, I realized that if I could get no further than either lashing out blindly or withdrawing in despair, then I would simply be embracing the divisive, corrupting forces in our current social and political environment as a new truth.

It was Jim who reminded me that ultimately, in story, it is intention that creates meaning. If I wanted to show up as part of the solution rather than simply add weight to the negative side of the scales, I would have to find the positive intention within myself and bring it to the surface. That idea in itself provided a tiny glimmer of hope, but it was only a glimmer, and I struggled to keep that flame alive against the flood of poison with which the world seemed to be trying to extinguish it.

I got a small boost the next day, as I listened to a conversation between Ezra Klein and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was familiar with Mr. Coates from previous interviews but I had avoided his writing because I thought his stance was too radical for me. Still, I was struck by the title promoting the podcast: Why Ta-Nehisi Coates is hopeful. After all, hope is what I was looking for. He described a recent conversation with his father, a Vietnam vet who was a member of the Black Panther party at the time of the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King. His father told him that, although there were white people protesting racism in 1968, the faces in the crowds protesting the murder of George Floyd are way more representative of a broad swath of the American people. That is the reason why Ta-Nehisi Coates is hopeful, and it was enough to nurture my glimmer of hope for another day.

Mr. Coates said something else, as well, which struck me not so much as a source of hope, but more like a light illuminating a dark place I had never been able to see into. He said that the way many white people feel about living in a world in which Mr. Trump is considered a fit moral character to lead this nation is the way many black people feel about living in a world in which their children must be taught that they cannot trust the police. I’m paraphrasing, but that is the way I heard it, and in that moment, seven decades of puzzlement and good intention fell away. For the first time in my life, I felt that I could see the problem clearly, with a kind of empathy and compassion that had eluded me.

Later that day, I read what Jim Mattis wrote in The Atlantic  I don’t know General Mattis’s politics, but based on his willingness to serve in Mr. Trump’s administration as Secretary of Defense, I can guess that he and I have very different opinions about a variety of policy issues. But I agree with him that “‘Equal Justice Under Law’…is a wholesome and unifying demand — one that all of us should be able to get behind.” I agree with him that focusing on a small number of lawbreakers at the expense of “tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values” is a distraction. And I was particularly struck when this man, who has served at the highest levels of the military and the government, noted that “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try.”

These emails I send are normally about the intersection of story with marketing and business strategy. I don’t use them to debate political issues. But these are not normal times, and I am trying to show up here, in this way, because I believe what we are confronted with are not issues of policy but issues of character. I have good friends who have supported Mr. Trump. I understand that, on issues of policy, he has delivered results that are important to them. I am happy to discuss my ideas about trade, taxation, immigration, separation of powers, health care, environmental regulation, I see valid ideas on different sides of all these issues, and my own opinions about many of them are not settled. But if, after everything we have seen and heard, any of my friends still believes that Mr. Trump is a man of good character, fit lead a great nation through a difficult time, then we do not share enough common ground to have a meaningful conversation about it.

With regard to marketing, what I have seen in recent weeks is that the character of a brand is more than just the happy, entertaining personality it displays when things are going well. In any story, the true character of the protagonist is revealed when things fall apart. It looks like a lot of brand leaders are on the same kind of journey I’ve been on—trying to figure out who they are personally, who they are as a team, and how they and their brands need to show up in order to be true to themselves. For me that has meant sitting quietly, examining my intentions (both positive and negative), watching carefully for the glimmers of hope, and considering how I can authentically nurture those embers with the stories I choose to live by.

And as I sat, thinking about stories of hope, I was reminded of the granddaddy of them all, as told by author and teacher Rachel Naomi Remen, who received it, appropriately, from her own grandfather as a gift on her fourth birthday:

In the beginning there was only the holy darkness. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day. Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.*

(* Rachel Naomi Remen, interviewed by Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith, Nov 2008)


“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