By Jim Signorelli
If you’ve gotten past the title of this article (and many don’t) you’re obviously intrigued. How could anyone expect to sell anything this way? Telling someone you’re terrific is so, well…crass, obnoxious, and Neanderthal, anything but effective. Right?
Curious, I created an experiment. I set out to see how people would actually react to someone saying “Hey there! I am terrific!“, not in written words, but in a real face-to-face interaction. So, taking life into my own hands, I stood out on a street corner to see how passersby might react.
After a startled stare and/or a quizzical “huh?,” I either received a polite “no thanks” or a profane description of what I should do with or to myself. Consequently, I gave up on this experiment early on so I don’t have anything that would come even close to a projectable sample. But I’m going to take a leap of faith and hypothesize that the chances of someone responding with “okay, I’m buying whatever terrificness you’re selling,” are slim to none.
So why would I do such a thing? What’s to figure out? Nobody talks this way. So what’s the big deal?
Before you answer that, watch a little TV tonight and pay particular attention to the commercials. Take stock of the how often brands depend on self praise in their advertising, as in “we are reliable, we are caring, tasty, smart, cool, friendly, sexy etc.” Look around you, on billboards, postcards, digital banners, restaurant place mats, business cards – wherever there is paper, plastic, video or audio paid for by an advertiser, chances are that it won’t be long before you see and hear words telling you how terrific some brand is.
Okay, so most advertising isn’t quite as objectionable as some stranger walking up to a person pronouncing human superiority. Furthermore, being blatantly immodest may be frowned upon in one-to-one verbal exchanges, but it’s totally acceptable for advertisers.
I recently visited my doctor for a routine physical and my annual guilt trip for loving an occasional cigar. When I called to make an appointment, the operator made it sound like she was upset. I don’t know, maybe I interrupted a winning hand of Solitaire. She put me on hold while she looked up my information. There, in phone purgatory, I heard three of the hospital’s latest commercials delivered by somebody I didn’t know (or trust) telling me that at this particular hospital “EXCELLENCE IS ALL AROUND YOU.” (I caped this to make up for not being able to put it against an emotional music background, like in the commercials).
“How about that?,” I thought. In the twenty-some years I’ve been coming to this place, it never occurred to me that excellence was all around me. I thought all along that this health care center that I come to for the sake of staying alive was just mediocre. Gave me goose bumps.
When I arrived for the appointment, I saw posters and brochures tagged “Excellence is All Around You.” Then, when I got the “you’re healthy” email from my doctor, the very same advertising tag line was placed under his signature.
I like my Doctor (except for the cigar lectures). I like the hospital he’s affiliated with. I wouldn’t think of switching. But it has absolutely nothing to do with his or the hospital’s self-serving opinion that “excellence is all around me,” even if it is. I decide what’s excellent or desirably “terrific” – not the advertiser. Come to think about it, I could say it’s insulting. But I won’t. If I let myself feel insulted every time I was exposed to advertising like this, I would need to book another appointment with a different kind of doctor, the kind that treat’s depression.
Why then, one might wonder, do brands advertise like this? Could it be that it’s always done this way, that it’s culturally acceptable for advertisers to brag and boast about who they are and what they do? We ignore most of it anyway, so why care?
If you have a brand, and especially now at a time when social media is availing people to go public with their opinions apart from yours, you maybe ought to care.
What’s the solution? I asked this of some astute marketing people recently, and their answer was to rely more on facts than opinions or puffed-up superiority claims. “Let the facts speak for themselves,” they said.
Okay, I’m good with that. Seems logical, but even hard, cold, provable facts have their foibles.
Last summer, we conducted a study of an ad for a client promoting the “fact” that it had just been recognized by J.D. Powers for having the “best customer satisfaction” as compared to its competitors. Surprisingly, it generated little or no positive response. Here were some of the things respondents said:
“J.D. Powers is not me. How do they know what I’m looking for?”
“Did [the advertiser] pay for this award?
“Doesn’t do anything for me.”
“Yeah, but what aren’t they telling us?”
This is not to say that a brand fortunate enough to garner third-party endorsement like this should keep it hidden from consumers. But it does suggest that facts alone do not always outperform claims of superiority.
So, let’s add it up. So far, we can’t brag. And facts aren’t as hard working as one might think. Is my purpose here to completely destroy the institution of advertising on which so much depends (including my living)? Am I out of my mind? Absolutely not, and I’m taking the 5th on that second question.
Some brands have actually found the solution. Besides the usual suspects like Nike, Apple, and Harley-Davidson, there’s North Face who is now providing a great example with its’ “Never Stop Exploring,” campaign. Then there’s Corona’s “Find Your Beach,” and Chipotle’s “Cultivate a Better World. If you look closely, you won’t find one declarative “we” in ideas expressed by these brands, no brags, no boasts – just a clearly stated value or a belief in what the value as important. And by association with these beliefs, these brands tell an important story about themselves and without getting in their own way. Through these expressions, these brands say volumes about who they are without explanation.
These are what I refer to as “StoryBrands.” I call them that because they function the way stories do. Stories don’t push influence on us, they pull us into becoming influenced. They inspire rather than force identification. And they create resonance to the extent that we share the underlying belief that is espoused.
Gaining trust is everything when it comes to persuasion. And when you are the one trying to gain trust, credibility is influenced by many other factors besides what you think of yourself or an endorsement by a credible source.
Thinking of your brand as its main story character with a cause or a reason for being, one that goes beyond the profit motive, can open up new, more creative alternatives for advertisers than the old standby “brag and boast” form of persuasion. Instead of being the hospital that brags “excellence is all around you,” perhaps an association with the value of excellence as a worthwhile pursuit in life, let alone health care, would be a more effective appeal. Instead of being the brand that cites some statistic about customer satisfaction, perhaps an association with the shared value of people caring for other people would render greater trust.
As such, story logic provides an important remedy for advertising at a time when consumer skepticism and distrust are mounting. We were humans before we became consumers. As humans, we naturally gravitate to stories and the ideas, experiences and lessons with which they invite us to participate.
Speaking of lessons, I only have two. Think of your brand as a story, and not as an opportunity to brag. And don’t try my experiment at home.
Jim Signorelli is the founder and CEO of ESW Partners, a Chicago-based marketing firm and author of the new book, StoryBranding: Creating Stand-Out Brands Through the Power of Story. For more information, please visit www.eswpartners.com.