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Chapter 10: Storytelling

The word “storytelling” can seem vague and overly grandiose. It’s the kind of term that might seem more at home in a first-year liberal arts class than in marketing. Thinking of it so would be a mistake, though, and it’s too important to not give due attention. Choosing to ignore it is just what makes so many marketing efforts flop. Many concentrate on the notion of selling, when they could harness the power of “tell me more.”

Are you too safe?

Middle managers are a core ingredient of big companies and they tend to be known for making safe, reliable choices and running proven methods. When you need to have your staff arrive on-time, stay until the end of their shift, or ensure that the project is completed on schedule, these folks are perfect! A lot of them do even better yet with the best bringing a team to life and boosting morale. These are very important people, but I ask if their skills just aren’t suited for every role.

These people are hired for their consistency, but that belies what’s sometimes needed in order to market a company effectively. We rely so heavily on middle managers to be safe that they sometimes can’t see anything else. They often lean towards brand attributes and marketing campaigns that concentrate only on clichés because these seem to be more practical approaches. They can do “25% off” ads, direct mail pieces, or pop-up ads touting features because these all appear to be sensible things to do. When it comes to connecting with your audience, there’s more to the picture than just being sensible. Although risk should always be weighed carefully, it’s sometimes necessary to uncover something amazing.

Control is a brake pedal

We love to claim that we measure results, act on data, and apply “best practices” when it comes to marketing, but most of this is a fantasy held in place by just doing what others have done before. Meanwhile, middle-managers are so concerned with being safe and practical that they don’t find much room (or reason) for being messy, sexy, dirty, noisy, or “in-love.”

We people are wired differently. We like all of the stuff that doesn’t fit nicely on a balance sheet. We like the grease, gossip, and tawdry details. We can’t resist the cover of People Magazine that promises a glimpse at celebrities without their makeup. We want to read about a company’s stumbles on their way to success. Similarly, at the scene of an accident, we turn and look—no matter how little we want to admit doing so.

Control is a tricky construct. Although it lends comfort, it slows us down. It kills messages with politeness, politicking, and predictability. Most middle managers don’t particularly mind this. In my experience, most would rather keep a foot planted firmly on that brake pedal than even take a small chance. No one’s getting fired for hiring IBM, but they might if they make the company look silly.

Here’s why you, as a small company, can clinch this marketing thing: you aren’t trying so hard to cover your ass. All you have to do is make sure that people buy your stuff. So what if you look a little silly from time to time? What’s the problem if you stumble occasionally? You are likely free of shareholders, boards of directors, and investors who might chastise you for such a slip. You just have to choose between massive opportunity and politely blending in.

I say you grasp hold of the wheel, take a chance, and give people a reason to listen.

What happened next?

Stories are amazing. J.J. Abrams talks about this, and the power of mystery, in his presentation at the TED conference.55 He references how stories like the one told in the first Star Wars pull us in by tapping our curiosity until we’re invested. (I’m paraphrasing liberally here; go to the TED website for the real deal.) What’s important is that even the simplest stories, told well, have the potential to sweep us off our feet and make us concentrate. Marketing is largely about just that: getting people to pay attention.

Most marketing doesn’t give the audience any reason to listen. It’s knee-jerk messaging that concentrates more on the speaker than the audience. This is where things fall apart. For the most part, I don’t care about your company; I care about me. Your claims of great service aren’t about me; they’re just there to persuade me to buy your stuff. Frankly, “great service” is pretty-much the worst story ever told in marketing—because everyone else says exactly the same thing!

Last week I drove to Seattle with my wife Amea and our kids. Along the I5—somewhere around Skagit—I spotted a government-issue sign that lists local businesses of interest to motorists. I rarely pay attention to such signs. One restaurant I’d never before heard of, hacked their sign by telling a good story. (By “hack” I mean: using a system in a way unintended by its creator to one’s advantage.)

The sign read: “Iron Skillet—great food, lousy service.” I thought it to be a misprint, or a victim of vandalism. I looked again, smiled, and proceeded to talk about it with my wife. This is storytelling with just six words… and they hooked me with only one! Instead of saying the same thing as everyone else, they grabbed me with the question of why they’d admit to bad service, followed by the inevitable, “How good does their food have to be in order to willingly make such an admission?”

I don’t know that I’ll ever stop at the Iron Skillet near Skagit, but I’m awfully tempted.

Even free isn’t good enough

Twenty years ago an ad selling on price alone could break through that noise; today you’d have to drop that price to zero in order to even budge the needle.

When I was in fourth grade, a department store in our city had a giveaway. They advertised a coloring contest, with all the kids who entered eligible to receive a free toy. This was the talk of the school-ground, with all of us thinking we’d get Transformers for our hard efforts. (Instead we got skipping ropes that didn’t work very well.) Nevertheless, we all had our parents driving to the store two weeks before Christmas, just so we could get our free toys.

It’s somewhat different these days, isn’t it? Put “free” in front of most things and few of us pay any attention. Free is all over the place. It doesn’t matter, and even when it does, it probably hurts you more than it’s worth. We all learned that free rarely comes without some caveat, so we just stopped paying attention. “Great, a free phone—pity that the monthly subscription is $60. Free… right.”

Deals only get you so far. Stories—real stories—are different.

There are good stories to be found in truth

My greatest aversion to the word “storytelling” is that it brings with it epic connotations, when it’s actually far simpler than this. For the most part, we aren’t talking about Homer’s Odyssey when we reference this term. (Frankly, I could never understand that stuff anyway.) Most of the time, it just comes down to giving the listener a reason to pay attention. In my mind, storytelling is a way to move past plain facts in order to wrap others up in the sound, smell, taste, and spirit of the moment. These are the parts that we actually care about.

When we started our company, I likened “selling” to telling people nice things about our company and how we could help them. I now see these first meetings as an opportunity to test how compatible we might be, and to determine if they’re excited about the same things we are. Although I used to have a nearly canned “pitch,” I now tell stories. Few of them are fanciful or rely on hyperbole—some are downright embarrassing. One that I tell often relates to a past client who’s likely still angry with me. He’s a particularly smart guy, whose company does forensic science. This means that they investigate mishaps and such, and serve as “expert witnesses” in certain legal cases.

Our work with this client was exciting. They came to us as a result of past successes we’d had and really opened themselves up to our process. As we worked together, we devised an identity system that I am still proud of. Each element involved a sense of mystery and discovery. On the surface, everything was professional and safe, but upon looking closer, there was always more to the story.

The project moved along well. Our primary contact there was rational, articulate, and fun to work with. Our last in-person meeting involved him giving us a thumbs up, noting that it was “just right” for them, and very “smart” (his words). We were happy about this and built the files out to completion as we had been instructed to do. Then things got weird.

Months passed with no response to our emails, and we found ourselves rather perplexed. Early in the new year, we learned of a delay due to a new office; two months later, the project was mothballed. Everyone in their marketing department had apparently been replaced, and the new hires were unconvinced of the direction we had provided.

This same client who had once been so very satisfied became upset, even demanding a refund. I explained that the allotted hours and more had been worked. We could step back in the process, but would have to charge for doing so. To make this less painful I offered a reduced rate and to carry forth some hours to a new project. None of this seemed enough. Ultimately, I could do nothing to bring resolution to the situation. All of his rational insights and sensibilities seemed replaced by blind emotion. He then threatened to share his dissatisfaction with others he knew in business if I didn’t refund him. This led him to shout even more and finally hang the phone up on me. That identity system (which I still feel to be some of our best work) never saw the light of day. I regret how that project ended.

I continue to tell this story when we meet with potential clients. Why? First, I think it helps us break through the noise. If a company meets with ten different agencies, they’ll find ten slick but largely identical pitches. I want our presentation to stand out, and in part I make that happen by breaking the pattern. I think such truthful recollections illustrate that even with the best intentions, things can go awry; additionally, what better way to lend credibility to our claims than to acknowledge such a mess?

I also think this is a sound way to show potential clients that we really think about the work we do and push to do remarkable things. We’ve screwed up, but each time we learn from our fumbles. Little has been irreparable, and I believe that a willingness to fail opens us up to the possibility of achieving something great. For the record, I believe that system was a success; my inability to get them to commit, however, marks it a failure. Some don’t like to hear this sort of thing; others do. These are the people we want to work with. They also tend to retell our stories, and we really like it when people do that.

Why listen if it isn’t interesting?

One morning last winter a contact called to ask about the cost of creating a blog for his company. We spoke for a while and I explained that the cost and requirements of a blog can be deceptive. The design needn’t be costly and the software isn’t either. My comment was that people don’t visit blogs for the design or technology—they read them because of the stories. You can have an ugly blog without any features, plug-ins, or widgets and still command an enormous following. What you must do is compellingly present information on topics that people care about—that’s it.

The prospective blogger then explained, “I think Rob will write the posts. He’ll probably do it once a month, but… he’s not much of a writer. I don’t know how I’ll even get him to write that often.” We then discussed some of the dynamics related to blogging and delivering compelling content. I urged him to establish a mandate, find a voice, and write good articles. I asked him to consider telling stories they were uncomfortable sharing—perhaps the kind of insights that their competition would kill for. In my mind, this is just the kind of thing that will attract a large following (and buzz).

He noted that this was a possibility, but quite unlikely, as they only really wanted to use the blog for SEO (search engine optimization) that would bring link-strength to their corporate website. You tell me: what kind of a blog would this be? One with boring stories, written infrequently, by someone who doesn’t want to write… Hmmm… would you read it?

We never did win that contract. What I proposed didn’t jibe with them. It was too costly, risky, and time-consuming. They were looking for something cheap, safe, and fast that would build their business. Aren’t we all? I later looked back on the blog. Not one post had received a single comment. (I sure hope it helped on an SEO basis.)

You’re more interesting than you think

It’s easy to toss about terms like storytelling, but many are confounded by the question of how to start and what story to tell. Let’s eliminate this fear right now; good stories are everywhere. They’re in the weird guy on the bus this morning; the hardest project you ever worked on; and, what your kids said at dinner last night. Stories are around us even at the most banal seeming moments. So why do we find ourselves stymied when it comes to telling our business’ stories?

My opinion is that it all relates to how we put layers between ourselves and the truth. Perhaps these are helpful in insulating oneself, but they get in the way when it’s time to tell a story. They lead us to edit when we really need to concentrate on just communicating. We start to ask questions like: Are we being too personal? Will we sound unprofessional? Is this too much information? (All valid questions, but they’re often asked at the wrong time.) So we find ourselves verbally constipated.

The next time you’re stuck, I suggest you just start. Get it out first and edit later. By simply putting something down, you build a little inertia and ideas will feel less evasive. I think we all have stories worth telling, but see them as unremarkable because we’ve lived with them for too long. This leads us to toss great stories in the waste-bin, thinking they’re boring. You have to dig up those stories, dust them off, and see how they look in fresh light. Once told, we’re often surprised to learn that there’s more to them than we had once thought.

Personally, I think our most interesting stories are the ones we hesitate to share. “Nerdiness” for example, is something we often cover up to shield ourselves from what we believe to be the wrong kind of attention. Doing so allows us to maintain an illusion of safety, but it also keeps us from tapping great stories.

Nerdy people

I’m a nerd. As a kid I loved drawing, comic books, talking too much, computers, weird printing techniques, over-the-top heavy metal, and countless other things. These, alongside my social awkwardness, kept me from being invited to most high school parties. I also had a really bad haircut. To the point, though, all of those nerdy interests are to credit for the interesting things I do today.

My love of drawing led me to design, in which communication (and sometimes talking a lot) is vital. My interest in computers helped me embrace technology and understand its paradigms. Those capabilities in part lead some to seek out our firm’s expertise in these areas. Of course, there’s more to who I am than the aforementioned points, but they do comprise an important part. Neglecting them would have resulted in a career as an accountant. For me that would have been a grave mistake.

The fact is, you’re a nerd. Somewhere inside you is one who can recount every passage from This is Spinal Tap; or, perhaps you can provide a detailed summary of every Stanley Cup playoff over the past decade. Maybe you can disassemble and reassemble a motorcycle without breaking a sweat; or, you might know volumes about Argentinian wine. I don’t know what you’re nerdy at, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a nerd just a scratch beneath the surface.

This obsessive nature is a result of love, and something that many find compelling. When we’re wildly excited about a topic, we speak differently. We light up and become enthusiastic; we make wild hand gestures and race to get our point across. A few might roll their eyes and claim boredom at such obsession, but let’s not worry about these people. If they don’t want to dive in, there’s little you can do to convert them, but there are probably many others who share your passion, or will at least find it somehow compelling.

We’re fascinated by those who follow their bliss

Look back at a few of the documentaries that have stuck with us over recent years. Many of them feature people who have gone far past what the rest of us would consider normal. This is ostensibly because they felt some burning need to do so. Go Further brought us into Woody Harrelson’s world of obsessively healthy living, raw food, and closer connections with the planet. In it, Woody and his friends get on a bus and drive down the West Coast, teaching others how to live differently while sharing their stories along the way.56

In Surfwise we meet the Paskowitz family. Their domineering patriarch “Doc” forsakes a career as a doctor, embracing a life of adventure and hardship. Their family of eleven spends decades in a small camper subsisting on a meager diet, while observing a seemingly dogmatic commitment to surfing.57 Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica spends 80 minutes involving us in the world of designers who passionately verbalize their love, or hatred, for the ubiquitous typeface. It tracks the type family through its past and ever-present use today.58

In each of these cases, we find ourselves transfixed. In part, we’re just captivated by those so fanatical about what they love. Few of us will become vegans, sell our worldly possessions in order to surf, or be able to discern the difference between Helvetica and Arial. That doesn’t matter; what does is that for a moment we stopped what we were doing and paid attention to these stories. This isn’t something we’d do as readily for less-nerdy folks. So many stories out of Hollywood are based on obsessive behavior of some sort. Ask yourself: what are you obsessive or nerdy about? Somewhere in there is a great story waiting to be told.

Just under his sleeve

Unique stories, characteristics, and obsessions are just as common in companies. Sure, some may be cubicle-farms without character, love, or personality, but let’s be honest: the people in those aren’t reading a book like this. (If they are, it may be time to shake things up or find a new place to work.) It’s hard to find a company that didn’t start from some kind of love. This passion doesn’t necessarily have to make sense to others. What matters is that you remember why you started and that you stay connected with those feelings. Once you’re there, it’s easy to embrace your company’s inner-nerd.

A few years ago, we worked with an arena that housed anything from concerts to sporting events and trade shows. It was a strange process, as the number of stakeholders involved made the process cumbersome. There were a number of disparate interests at work, requiring us to merge two distinct identity systems into one overarching solution. Additionally, the facility wasn’t particularly beautiful.

The discovery stage started unremarkably, with a number of predictable responses to our questions. Things changed half-way through the meeting when a seemingly shy fellow rolled up his sleeve. He operated an ice-cleaning machine called a Zamboni and was so proud of his role, that he had an image of the machine tattooed on his arm. Upon sharing this, the rest of the group opened up and started to add their personal stories. All of them loved to put on a good show for attendees and took enormous pride in doing so. We had found the story to tie the brand together.

I’ve used this example on numerous occasions since that meeting. The interesting note is that this insight didn’t come from those one might have expected. The leaders, managers, and executives all contributed to the process and had things to say, but their responses sounded practiced. They were saying exactly what one would expect them to. The story that made the difference came from a guy who didn’t even want to be at the meeting. He just loved his job.

Nerdy companies

The Moleskine is a simple notebook housed in an oilcloth-wrapped cardboard cover. It is held closed with a soft, fabric-based elastic band and has rounded corners. Aside from this, it’s in no way remarkable. On the other hand, their story is. Moleskine claims to be “the” notebook of Picasso, Matisse, and Hemingway. While this story is contested by some as not being wholly accurate, it creates a wonderful mythology.59 The company uses this as part of their culture, championing notions of exploration, discovery, and self-expression. They don’t promote any other products. They’re obsessed with the magic of a simple notebook.

Most of us use Google services. Their offering rarely seems as visually polished as that of their peers, but most of us appreciate the utility and ease found in their products. Designing user interfaces to be this intuitive isn’t easy. One team at Google was so obsessed about making a product perform best that it tested 41 shades of blue just to determine which proved most usable.60 Google is nerdy about analysis and function—so much so that many of their products become category killers.

One of the designers who worked at our studio told me the story of Nudie Jeans. This company, based in Sweden, is obsessive about denim. In their website they propose that, “Jeans share the same soul and attitude as music.”61 Additionally, they claim that denim should be looked upon as a naked material that transforms to become a second skin for the wearer, becoming increasingly beautiful with time. You aren’t supposed to wash Nudie jeans for the first six months, to maintain the intensity and character of the denim. Nudie Jeans are considerably more expensive than most standard brands; they also have a compelling story and start a surprising number of discussions. I initially found the whole notion absurd—now they’re the only jeans I want to own.

Everyone’s got something

None of the stories contained in the provided examples are particularly earth-shattering. There is no swordplay, bank heist, or car-chase even remotely associated with these examples. By many standards, I’ve actually talked about rather mundane things: a blank notebook, some web-based software, and a brand of jeans. Does that matter? We all like to get excited about things. We want a reason to believe in what we do, say, and buy. I even argue that we enjoy how some of these banal things delight us and provide stories to recount. I’d bet that if you dig a little, you’ll find some stories of obsession in your company too.

Perhaps you want to serve the best seafood in the city, and have established relationships with local fishermen to get the first pick of their daily catch. You might be the kind of company that takes broken iPods and refurbishes them with bigger hard-drives, enabling people to take their entire music collections on their players.62 Maybe you’re a florist who only uses local flora in your arrangements as you care deeply about sustainability. (I haven’t ever heard of anyone doing this last thing, but if I did, I’d frequent that shop regularly.)

Our company is nerdy too. We have long discussions around semantics, debate the perfect amount of spacing between glyphs in a wordmark, and even argue whether the “Cancel” or the “OK” button should be placed on the right. (I’ve learned to not share these stories at dinnertime, as I all too clearly remember the blank expressions when I did.) Although it’s not necessarily captivating subject matter to all, for those looking to hire a design agency, these discussions are probably compelling evidence of our commitment to our craft.

Before I opened the box, I had little idea…

I made a presentation at an event last fall. As a thank-you to the speakers, the event organizers graciously packed some gifts for us. Being rather exhausted, I initially paid little attention to the contents of the package—not even the box of chocolates it contained.

The next morning I passed the chocolates around the office. One-by-one, each of us responded with amazement. Shinya seemed to melt; Devin’s eyes opened wide; I exclaimed, “holy crap that’s good!” Shelkie (our resident “chocoholic”) simply sat back in his chair and said, “That puts a Hershey bar to shame, doesn’t it?” I think our collective idea of what constituted chocolate changed at that moment. What was their secret? How did they do it? The investigator in me had to know, and I took to the web for a little sleuth-work.

Cocoa West is a small chocolatier on Bowen Island—approximately 5 kilometers from Vancouver. Here, Joanne Mogridge and her husband Carlos Vela-Martinez make their delicious chocolates and truffles from organic and locally sourced ingredients. On their website, they talk about the exotic spices, garden herbs, local fruit and cream, and Canadian maple syrup that they bring together with organic European chocolate.63 Their boxes contain small quantities of chocolates and are marked with an expiry date, given that no preservatives are used in their creations. Those who feel so inclined can even stay at the couple’s “Bed & Chocolate”—a B&B-like place in which guests can indulge their chocolate cravings on-site.

This is a simple story but one that many of us can identify with. Who wouldn’t love to replace their desk job for island-life? This story is made remarkable by the mouth-watering delights they serve up. Their obsession with, and capacity for, crafting remarkably good chocolate, coupled with their unique location, makes it an easy story to tell: “You have to try this chocolate! It’s made on Bowen Island, and it’s amazing!”

Boring them to death

The problem that most companies face in telling their stories has little to do with production value or their chosen delivery channel. It’s typically boils down to a simple reality: they’re telling boring stories.

I know a guy who does this. He’s well dressed, successful (bewilderingly), and quite possibly the first walking, talking, human sedative. It wouldn’t even help if he was wearing a suit made from flashing-lights or sported a strap-on dildo as a hat. He’s boring, and his stories are equally so. I don’t listen, and I probably never will. If I ever have to sit with him again, I’ll crack my skull open and scoop out my brain with the first available utensil. Really… seriously… no joke—I’ll do this! The unfortunate part is that your company might suffer from the same affliction.

The problem for the aforementioned fellow is that he’s so in love with his own drivel that he doesn’t ever stop to ask if anyone else cares. (My hunch is that if he had to listen to his own stories, he’d likely join me in my “brain-scooping” expedition.) But he doesn’t, so he won’t. He’ll just keep talking and people will keep snoring. In thirty years he might figure out that he’s a boring twat who’s been spewing out platitudes and buzzwords for his entire life.

As a business owner, you don’t need thirty years to figure out if you’ve been blowing smoke. As you know, most companies only have a few ways to succeed. Some have gobs of cash, which gives them the freedom to do anything until the money runs out. The rest of us have to make great stuff and give people a good reason to care. Failing to do so will simply result in us euthanizing our own companies.

A story worth telling

Great advantage can be had by giving people a reason to pay attention. Part of this comes down to telling a good story. Determining which stories meet this criteria is easy. Do the following:

1. Pick up the phone.
2. Call a friend (the kind who would tell you if you smell).
3. Read your story (brochure copy, website text, ad script) as it’s currently written.
4. Keep reading until you feel uncomfortable.
5. If you don’t reach this point, wait to see if they stop you.

If, at the end of your call, you’re still talking and they’re still listening you might be on the right track. You could do the same with almost any piece of literature for most Fortune 500 companies without success. Typically these stories sound like a sack of lies or the awkward love child of the legal and marketing teams.

Going unnoticed is worse than ruffling some feathers

People get scared when it comes to the possibility of upsetting others. This is a shame, as some deserve to be poked and cajoled. It’s all too easy to claim that nothing’s exciting and then do little to change things. You and I will say some things that others might not, in order to ensure that we’ve got the audience’s attention.

Take the passage a moment ago. It’s sort of mean to make fun of my dull colleague as I have. Some who read it might have stopped out of pure disgust at my abrasive tone. You’re still here, and that’s the important part. Whenever you say or do something that isn’t safe and nice, you run the risk of losing a few.

I am of the mind that this risk isn’t nearly as great as the one associated with going unnoticed. The jackass doing the funky chicken on the dance floor won’t have women swooning, but he might get a few laughs and strike up a conversation or two. The wallflower remains unnoticed.

Take the pain out of brainstorming

I write, give examples, and carry on, but at some point you’re going to need to tell your own stories. Perhaps you’ll hire someone like me to help determine which stories you should be telling, and how you might go about doing so. If not, you may find yourself looking at a blank page unsure of what to do next. In later chapters, I’ll talk about methods of executing on your plans. For now, I want to share the question that makes brainstorming easy. It is simply: “Wouldn’t it be cool if?”

Coming up with ideas is easy. It’s so easy that in doing so we often find ourselves dumbfounded. So we make it harder: we doubt, criticize, and edit too early. In short order we find ourselves pulling out our hair or trying to throw computers out of closed windows. That one question though? It’s magic! The reason it’s so powerful is that it opens us up to wonder. It gives us a chance to dream of things that might blow us away. Resist the urge to edit yourself prematurely, as doing so can put a damper on your “wouldn’t it be cool if?” party. Let’s open this thing up by pretending that we’re a company that makes low cost pocket-sized video cameras.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we…

- Sponsored our own mini-film festival, showing the best ones on the web?
- Had everyone in the company document a year of their life?
- Held a free summer-camp, teaching kids how to make movies?
- Gave cameras to world travelers and asked them to share their experiences?
- Devoted 20 percent of our time to making videos that tell socially relevant stories?

I’m unclear of the logistics found in doing all of these things, and perhaps they would be deemed impractical upon further inspection. That’s OK—we don’t need the perfect idea. The sole point of such an exercise is to break away from writing a spec-sheet and attaching a corny marketing slogan to it. Besides, I don’t mind having a thousand lousy ideas if they get me closer to the one that gets people talking.

My one caveat with the “wouldn’t it be cool if?” question, is to avoid thinking solely from the company/marketer/designer’s perspective. Most times these people have different motivations than those who use the thing we’re selling. So they come up with things that are boring and sound like ads. No—if we want to truly connect, we have to momentarily forget about selling product. The story that connects with your audience might not be the one you want to tell—but, it might be more important to engage them than “sell” them. We need to dig deeper, get closer, and pull out the things that people really want to see, hear, do, and feel.

Give good value

37signals is a small operation that creates software largely centered on simplifying tasks, notes, collaboration, and project management. Some swear by their software while others criticize them as inflexible and overly dogmatic.64 Either way, they’ve established a respectable presence, largely through storytelling. The first way that 37signals seemed to connect with people was through their blog Signal vs. Noise in which they share opinions on “design, business, experience, simplicity, the web, culture, and more.”65 They’re good writers and have built a substantial following by using this platform to discuss things they care about.

They often espouse doing less, and a powerful mythology has formed around this belief. Their ethos is at the core of their brand’s philosophy: creating software and services free of the complexity and bloat seen in enterprise solutions. They even created a manifesto of sorts, called Getting Real, which espouses the values that they develop software around. They claim to have sold over 30,000 copies of the PDF alone, and many know of them because they’re such strong advocates of agile development. The particularly interesting part, in my mind, is that they’ve made “doing less” a virtue. How many other companies use that as a selling feature?

Whether you agree or disagree with the methods that 37signals promotes, it’s difficult to find fault with the quality of the content they share. They do market themselves, but they don’t send a high ratio of sales pieces or get overly aggressive in their marketing. Instead, they’ve built a community by sharing the processes that helped them ship a number of successful products.

Lots of people get excited by new technology and think that it will do all the work for them. I argue that this is why so many Hollywood blockbusters turn out to be disastrous heaps of turd. No amount spent on special effects will get you past a bad movie—just consider a few of the more recent Star Wars flicks. Don’t worry about using every gimmick, tool, or form of social media; just start by making something good.


I briefly touched upon the notion of mythology in my ruminations regarding 37signals. When I use the word mythology in this context, I’m referring to a set of stories and ideas surrounding a particular entity. Some of these are crafted, while others come to life in a more organic fashion. Either way, they tend to be present in many of the brands that we hold close to our hearts.

In some ways, this is rather slippery territory, as corporate mythology and brands are rather similar. My personal feeling is that mythology taps into a deeper kind of storytelling than brands. For example, I know that the Xerox brand is synonymous with making copies, but that doesn’t necessarily give me a story to buy into. Ubiquity may very well be the pinnacle of brand success but mythology can lead to achieving that. Although, it can probably be found in any book relating to brands or marketing, I’d like to talk briefly about Harley-Davidson. Not referencing their coup would be foolish, given what a great example it is.

Harley-Davidson was in dire straits. Since its acquisition by AMF in 1969, quality had gone down as a result of a reduced workforce and more streamlined production. At the time, some also associated their brand with a criminal element. (Some of us remember when the terms Harley-Davidson and Hells Angels seemed closely related.) Alongside competition from Japanese motorcycle manufacturers the company was nearly bankrupt when a new set of investors took over in 1981.66

At a time like this, many businesses would choose to follow the trend set by the dominant imported motorcycles. Instead, Harley-Davidson made a bold move: they started a “revival” in which they mined and embraced the more unique historic characteristics of their company; began a campaign to re-connect with riders; and, fused their brand with Americana.67 Harley-Davidson didn’t chase the other guys. They amplified their own story and built a mythology. We all know how well this decision has served them. Incidentally, the Harley-Davidson brand recently ranked 73rd in Interbrand’s 2009 Best Global Brands scorecard.68

Stories aren’t in limited supply

You’d think that with all of the people out there with something to say, we’d have told just about every story possible. In fact, there are an endless number of twists, turns, and variations to keep all of us in stories worth sharing. Perhaps you’ll surprise your audience or include them in a personal tale. Some will connect fans with a universal truth or purpose that they can all rally around. Others may entertain and amuse, and a few will craft a mystery that gets people guessing. None of these are inherently better than any of the others. The approach you take is really dependent upon who you are and what you want to achieve. It’s OK if it’s messy and it’s OK if you fail—just give us a reason to pay attention.


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Next chapter: Authenticity and The Zellers Paradox




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