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Get Your Story Straight

In every great movie, there are five constructs that can be applied to guide narrative-based brand strategies: setting, hero, villain, mission and success. Successful brands are stories told well, so who better to turn to than the best storytellers: Hollywood.

Misconduct by big brand names and shifting consumer behavior have changed the perceived value exchange between brands and consumers. This has created opportunities to hold different conversations with the consumer with new approaches that enable them to better connect with the brand.

To optimize this new conversation, brands need to relinquish a degree of control to the consumer by adopting narrative-based brand and marketing that can impact multiple platforms to engage consumers. That will create brands that are more magnanimous, malleable and functional.

Setting is key. The day after "Mission Accomplished" was proclaimed in May 2003, "two brown trucks" were reported approaching the Iraq border via Turkey: It was UNICEF delivering on their "Advance Humanity" promise. Now that's a setting of a great narrative: UNICEF is always in first.

From toxic bank assets to tampered-with pizzas, the contract of trust between business and the consumer has been seriously damaged. It's time for marketers to generate more "earned media" with the deployment of brand narratives, nontraditional media and innovation playing a central role in the new two-way relationship with consumers.

As Noel Coward famously said, "Consider the public. Never fear it nor despise it. Coax it, charm it, interest it, stimulate it, shock it now and then if you must, make it laugh, make it cry, but above all never, never, never bore the living hell out of it."

Heroes and antiheroes must be called out. The cult of CEO as a "wealth-creating warrior king" has been eviscerated, but there are a few who are heralded as titans and heroes such as Apple's Steve Jobs, Xerox's Ann Mulcahey and antiheroes like Warren Buffett who operate as leaders with determination, self-reliance and a degree of success that is particularly notable.

These types of heroes enable narrative brand strategies that enamor the nation, and, over time, we start to trust them. We do so because they all share traits we search for in our heroes: belief, optimism, courage and preparation. The same traits can be found with rock stars like Bono and ordinary people like the remarkable singer, Susan Boyle of Britain's Got Talent fame, who inspired us all with the optimism that anything is possible. All brands need a hero.

So then who's the bad guy? Many brands suffer from a false sense of entitlement: They assume they have permission to play and end up groveling in a self-indulged pit of frivolous utility. All successful strategies are destined to fail, but new victory conditions can be created by the presence of a villain. Starbucks' brand is facing a chronic debilitating decline, so through BBDO it has launched an intelligent counter campaign to tell the brand's "story" around fair trade beans and its healthcare for employees. The villain they're pitted against is the price-driven competition who care not for either. We'll see if its army of Twitterers follow the print ads, but the approach provides Starbucks with a much needed purpose for being.

Identifying a clear mission is crucial. Take the average corporation's mission statement. Turn it on its head, and it doesn't hold water. In today's world littered with litigation, accusation, scandal and bankruptcy, whom do you trust? Thanks to the Internet, the overreliance that perception is reality has been vitiated. The truth should not be whatever you get others to believe; it should be about consistency between word and deed.

Brand messaging is about who you are and what you stand for. Without nonfinancial goals, your ship is rudderless. At one end of the spectrum, Johnson & Johnson is the fifth most profitable company in the Fortune 500 due in part to its strict adherence to its highly ethical mission statement established in 1943. At the other end of the spectrum we have Product (RED) that has reinvented the business model of philanthropy while focusing solely on its mission to eliminate AIDS in Africa.

Einstein proclaimed, "Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted." Hitting targets is not a marker of success. Enabling your brand to inspire authentic community, now that's true success.

With a mission to save the world from poverty, Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus launched Grameen Bank in Pakistan three decades ago. The bank pioneered the concept of "micro-credit." By focusing on the idea of solidarity lending, Grameen Bank has distributed $7 billion, helped break the cycle of debt for more than 3.5 million members and has a loan recovery rate of more than 95 percent.
These uncommon businesses share a common bond; they all shaped their brands to engage and enable people to be involved by providing consumers with a reason to participate: a story.

Dean Crutchfield is a N.Y.-based independent brand consultant.

--Adweek