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Campfire Stories: Episode Two with Lee Susen

One of the difficulties in telling an ongoing story, whether for a brand, a long-running TV series, or movie franchise, is keeping things interesting, relevant, and engaging without betraying the fundamental story the audience was drawn to. If the places you take the story stay too familiar, the show can start to feel formulaic. Sorry, Jack Bauer and ‘24’. If you explore territory too far afield it can seem like you’re just making things up as you go. Sorry Jack Shephard and ‘Lost’. If you do both, it just gets confusing and annoying. Sorry Jack Sparrow and the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films.

Lee Susen, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer at Mcllhenny Company, maker of TABASCO® Brand Sauce, was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about the challenges of marketing a brand that’s been a leader in its category for more than 150 years.

“The necessity of breaking through in a meaningful way is more important now than it’s ever been,” Lee told me.

Lee says that, as part of an exercise to write a 100-year plan for the brand, he and other TABASCO® Brand leaders asked themselves, “How do you leverage, honor, and be inspired by where you’ve come from as you endeavor to continue to grow into the future?” According to Lee, it’s easy to get trapped in unprovable speculation about what consumers will be thinking, or hung up on current product forms and their uses, when what’s really central to answering long terms questions about relevance is meaning.

“That’s what allowed us to have a conversation about the next 100 years,” Lee explained. “The problems we were trying to solve became secondary to the fundamental truth of well, who are we? And why do we do what we do as an organization? Where are we going?” With those questions answered, “Everything else falls into place,” he notes.

You can watch the full conversation and see more insights and advice from Lee in Character’s second Campfire Story: Writing for the 156th season of the TABASCO® Show.

“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