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Busted Noses, Black Belts, and Branding

We were helping a brand team work through how to use their story framework on the final day of Character Camp.

“Using the conflict is going to be key to restoring engagement,” their CMO said. “Our focus for the last few years has just been showing happy people enjoying the product. That hasn’t been moving the needle, but it’s really comfortable for us. If we’re going to fix our net promoter score, we’ve got to start showing the conflict, but I think that won’t be easy.”

“Naming it is half the battle,” my colleague Sara told her. “A big part of getting energy out of your story is just recognizing the conflict and embracing it.”

“That’s what the meaning of your brand story is all about,” I added. “The meaning is your brand’s point of view about how to thrive in a conflict when you can’t give up on either side. It’s like the instruction set about how to deal with the conflict.”

“Because this approach to conflict is so different, it can feel awkward and uncomfortable until you get good at it,” Sara encouraged. “It’s like learning—”

“Learning a martial art,” the client finished for her. “You guys have said that about a dozen times. What we’re all wondering is when do we get our blackbelts?”

Everybody laughed, but Sara shot me a look.


Have you met Sara? She’s the account director at Character—responsible for making sure everything is in order and under control. It was literally eleven years ago last month that she came in to work with a black eye and bruises around her neck. Before Wayne and I even managed to jump up from our chairs in alarm, she cut us off.

“Don’t freak out. I started doing Jiu-jitsu about a week ago, and I had a rough match last night.”

“Jiu-jitsu?” Wayne frowned. Do you know Wayne? He’s our business development director. And he’s got a black belt in Karate.

“Yeah. I guess I was expecting they would go easy on me because I’m a newcomer, but instead they went super hard.”

“Are you ok?” I asked.

“I’m sore, but fine. I think my pride is bruised worse than my face.”

“So…you’re going to stop, right?” I asked, flabbergasted. My blackbelt is in lying around reading books and eating pizza.

“Nah. I mean, it’s a little scary, but maybe that’s what I need right now? I’m not going to do any competitive matches or anything. It’s just that things were starting to feel boring. So, I guess I’m doing this instead of having a midlife crisis.”


Over the next few years, infusing more passion into her life resulted in plenty of busted lips, ugly bruises, and black eyes. And then there was the night she had to go to the hospital and was out for days because of a concussion and the need for stitches.

“So…you’re going to stop, right?” I asked when she came back to work.

“Maybe,” she said. But within a few days she’d changed her tune. “I feel like I have to keep at it. If I step away, it’s like I let fear win. Instead, I’ve decided to step up my game. I’m going to start training for my first competitive bouts at the next World Championship Tournament. It’s still a long way off, so I’ve got some time to prepare.”

“You’re totally going to win,” we encouraged. “We know it!”


She lost.

“It was weird,” she explained when she got back from the trip. “I’ve got the moves down in training, but as soon as the match started, my adrenaline took over. You know how they talk about seeing red? It was like I went into brawling-mode and I just attacked with everything I had. I guess I got too caught up in the excitement.”

“Isn’t that why you started doing this?” I asked. “To feel that rush? Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Not if it gets my butt kicked.”

“Well, you’ll win the next one,” we encouraged.

To ensure that, she put off her next competition while she trained relentlessly. Belts don’t come quick in Jiu-jitsu, but she graduated from her blue to purple belt. And then we got another call from the hospital. This time, it was a broken nose. and she was out for a full week.

“The guy was sloppy. He didn’t know what he was doing,” she explained when she was back in the office, her nose still swollen, purple around both eyes.

“Do I need to ask?” I asked.

“I’m not quitting,” she said. “I’ve booked my next World Championship Tournament.”

“You’re totally going to win,” we said. “We know it!”


“I got my butt kicked,” she told us when she got back.

“You did the brawling thing again?” I asked.

“No,” she laughed. “The opposite this time. I was too in my head, too focused on maintaining control. Being careful. I was tentative and my opponent took advantage of it.”

“So, you’re going to stop doing matches now?” I suggested.

“Nope,” she said.

“Sara’s no quitter,” Wayne noted.

“Instead, I signed up to be an ambassador for the Girls in Gis program. It’s all about bringing more girls and women into the sport. It’s super male-dominated right now.”

More years went by.


Sara fought in her most recent Championship Tournament at the beginning of last month. This one was in Vegas. The Christmas Cowboy Convention was in town at the same time.

“I took the gold!” she told us over our next video conference call.

“We knew it!” Wayne said.

“Apart from being completely wrong the first two times,” I joked. “So, what was different this time?”

“I embraced the conflict,” she said. “When I first started Jiu-jitsu, I think I was all passion. I’d just go at it with everything and forget my training. Just brawl. But after losing and then that last big injury, I think I overcorrected. I tried to restrain the passion, be super controlled. I got too ‘in my head’ instead of being there on the mat. But that’s the secret. You’ve got to be there, in the moment, on the mat. You can’t give up one side or the other—you have to smash the passion and the control together, and the only way to do that is to have learned the technique so completely that it’s there for you reflexively and you’re free to dive into the adrenalin and use that, too.”

“If you had an articulation of purpose, you’d have a full story framework there,” I told her.

“I do have a purpose,” she reminded me. “It’s to feel empowered and to share that sense of empowerment with others through Jiu-jitsu. That’s why I’m an ambassador for Girls in Gis.”

“Wow,” Wayne said.

“Impressive,” I agreed.

“One more thing,” Sara told us. “I just found out that I’m being awarded my black belt this month. And it only took eleven years.”


Although none of our clients noticed it at camp, all of that was what Sara meant when she shot me her look.

Here’s a link to Sara’s LinkedIn post about her black belt ceremony.

It’s easy, in the middle of a story, to resist the conflicting forces pushing and pulling you or your brand. Focused on winning, it almost always feels like one side or the other has to be repressed or defeated to get to a solution. But all of the power of story comes from diving into the conflict and finding a way to embrace it in order to harness its power. That’s hard, but it’s always rewarding. And if you keep at it, you eventually get your black belt.

“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