Why B2B Storytelling (Still) Matters
How can a business discover its brand story? The first step, according to David Altschul of Character LLC, is to identify the story’s conflict. Now, this isn’t the classic “good vs. bad” conflict that you tend to see in Marvel movies—a brand conflict is between two positives, think “independent vs. social” or “strong vs. soft.” That’s what Character specializes in, and they’ve helped some big-name clients (think Walmart, Amazon, Wendy’s) embrace such conflict and infuse it into the way they do business.
Why does this matter in B2B, you ask? Well, there are a few reasons. At the outset, brands with story set themselves apart from competitors that are just selling products; when the buying committee comes together, story unifies the c-suite’s perspective of your brand; and finally, story gives you a framework for making decisions no matter what you come up against, even a pandemic.
Tune in to this week’s episode to hear David’s expert advice on discovering brand story, and how to align the goals of your business across the board. He also answers questions from our live audience of three CMOs: Kevin Alansky of Higher Logic, JD Dillon of Enphase Energy, and Dave Bornmann of Naylor Association Solutions.
Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with David Altschul
Drew Neisser: Hello Renegade Thinkers! Before the COVID crisis, we might have all agreed that story mattered, but now that the world has been turned upside down and businesses and CMOs are trying to figure out survival strategies, do story and storytelling still matter?
Now before you answer that question, allow me to share two stories from another challenging time. During the United States Civil War—and I said “United States” because we do have some international listeners—Abraham Lincoln continued his habit of starting most meetings with a story and using humor to lighten a tense moment. He had mastered this skill when he had been a circuit lawyer, where they literally went from town to town and argued cases. Then, every night, they would gather in a bar and Lincoln would regale them with stories from his childhood or other ones that he’d collected. He literally practiced this art and he would hone it and would try the story over and over again until he got it. So, let me tell you, he was a profound storyteller, and we’re going to talk about the difference between story and storytelling, but let me share this one story that was told about Lincoln during the Civil War:
A gentleman was visiting a hospital at Washington and he heard an occupant of one of the beds laughing and talking about the President, who had been there a short time before and gladdened the wounded with some of his stories. The soldier seemed in such good spirits that the gentleman inquired, “You must be very slightly wounded.”
“Yes,” replied the brave fellow, “very slightly. I have only lost one leg and I’d be glad to lose another if I could hear some more of old Abe’s stories.”
Clearly, the man’s humor was a powerful motivator. Now, in the larger picture, Lincoln understood the power of story and the difference between storytelling like in the example above versus story as a strategic weapon. Now, historians may debate this, but it wasn’t until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that Northern soldiers really understood the meaning of the war. It wasn’t just about preserving the union, it was also about freeing slaves. That was a powerful strategic story shift that many historians consider a pivotal turning point for the war so, again, my courageous marketers, let’s consider the question: Does story matter?
To dig into that question, our guest today is David Altschul, president and founder of Character, who are the world’s foremost experts on character and story. David has been running the business for almost two decades, during which he has presided over nearly 200 story framework explorations for some of the world’s largest brands and companies. Among his accomplishments, one of the coolest ones of his was when he was at the Clay Animation Studio, Vinton Animation in the 80s. For those folks older like me, you will remember things like the California Raisins dancing to “Heard it Through the Grapevine” and the animated M&Ms. So, David with that long introduction, welcome to Renegade Thinkers Unite.
David Altschul: Thanks, Drew. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Drew Neisser: I want to mention one other thing. I became aware of Character because I interviewed Douwe Bergsma, maybe seven years ago, and he, who was at the time CMO of Georgia Pacific, talked about how story had really infiltrated many of the brands as a strategy. I have to say that with Angel Soft, when I was crying at a toilet paper commercial about a single dad, I knew that this story thing was really something else.
Anyway, I also want to let the audience know that we do have three CMOs live here with us and they will be participating in the third segment of the show, so stay with us on this special episode. David, first of all, you’re in Oregon, right? How are things there?
David Altschul: Well, I suppose we could spend the whole time discussing the way that this pandemic has inflicted the story landscape. I’ll just say that what I noticed in myself, in my community, and actually across the country with the people that I’m in touch with is a current of emotional fatigue that seems to be running just below the surface. We seem to be coping. The hospitals here are not yet overwhelmed although everybody’s holding their breath. But there’s a kind of weariness, and I suppose wariness, because we’re all sort of stumbling forward through a fog.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, it’s a challenging time and I’m curious how it impacted your company and you personally.
David Altschul: Well, like a lot of companies, we’ve been forced to innovate in a dramatic fashion. For 20 years, my partner and I’ve been running this small consulting operation that operates entirely in person. All the work we do is in the form of in-person workshops, we call them Character Camps, and it’s anywhere from, you know, ten to a dozen of the senior people in marketing or corporate communications and other strategic functions. We had a project scheduled to start two weeks ago, it was obviously signed just before everybody became aware of the tidal wave forming in the ocean offshore, and over the course of the month, from the time we signed the contract and we started, the project turned inside out.
What was going to be 12 people from four cities arriving in Portland and spending a weekend in face-to-face meetings turned into five people and the three of us in Portland, each in our separate homes from all across the country, for a two-hour video conference once a week for five weeks, with homework and offline conversations and so forth. It’s been very interesting. We’ve been thinking about innovating our process for 20 years, but we kind of liked the way it works. All of a sudden, we’ve turned it upside down and it’s actually working brilliantly. There are things about it that I like better.
Drew Neisser: There you go. I think that’s a microcosm for just about every company as they’re struggling to figure out how to reinvent all the functions of face-to-face virtually, and as we talk about larger stories that come from this that will certainly be one of them because it’s hard to imagine that all business will go back together.
Let’s get into story. You’ve been a proponent of story and storytelling for brands. Can you tell a story in the pre-COVID era of a brand that embraced story in a big way? If it’s B2B or B2C, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just talk about, you know, the way we used to think about the power of story related to brands.
David Altschul: Well, I don’t have permission to talk about very many of my clients because, for most of them, by the time we’re done, the work really represents the beating heart of the brand, but I do have and have had enthusiastic permission from Walmart to talk about work we did with them back in the mid-2000s. It must have been 2006. Stephen Quinn had been the head marketer there for 18 months. I don’t think they even had the title of CMO yet, but they had a problem. If you remember, Walmart in the mid-2000s had completely lost control of their story to their critics.
Drew Neisser: Mm-hmm.
David Altschul: You couldn’t open a newspaper without reading something disparaging about Walmart, and frequently it was more than one thing. It wasn’t just a PR crisis. Clearly, they couldn’t go into lines of business that they wanted to, they just couldn’t maneuver in the way that they felt like they needed to operate because they were tied down like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
In my neighborhood here in Portland, they wanted to open a Walmart, but they couldn’t get the real estate because the community rose up against them. They wanted to go into the banking business, which seems quaint now, but regulators stopped them. So, as I said, they’d lost control of their story to their critics.
Stephen knew us because we’d done a lot of work at Frito-Lay before he got to Walmart. He was quite new, as I said, he had been there 18 months and I don’t think he was hired to fix this, but once he was in place—and he was the only guy who knew about marketing—the leadership of the company said, “By the way, fix this. Get us out of this hole we seem to have fallen into.” So, Stephen brought his eight or ten senior people, marketing, merchandising, corporate communications, and advertising to Portland for what we call Character Camp.
What we do at camp is we try to understand the conflict that drives the story. That’s the most fundamental part of the story framework because without conflict there is no story. We look for clues in a lot of places. In the case of Walmart, some of the best clues came out of Sam’s story. When you look closely at it, Sam Walton was a very ambitious and competitive guy, so he was clearly in it to win, but if you read his autobiography, if you looked at what he did, he was also clearly on a mission to bring the good life, or at least the material attributes of the good life, to small communities all over the country who he felt were underserved and overcharged. There was a sense of service that infused his story.
Well, winning and service are both admirable qualities, but they don’t sit well together, and it makes an interesting conflict—”winning vs. service.” It’s a conflict, for example, at the heart of the concept of servant leadership which interestingly always had a lot of resonance around Walmart. Once we identified that the conflict that drove the Walmart story when it was at its best with “service vs. winning,” then it was a relatively short step to understand what had gone wrong. In the dozen years since Sam Walton died the service energy had drained out of the story.
What you had in 2006 was a story about a company—or a character, because stories are about characters—a story about a character who was determined to win purely for the sake of winning. Well, in a story that’s a really clear type. The character who is desperate to win for the sake of winning is always the villain and so it wasn’t hard to understand how Walmart had in twelve years become the villain in the drama of its category. From there, it was another relatively short step to the solution. In fact, we only have one thing to teach any client. The rule is always the same: figure out what the conflict is and learn to embrace it.
It’s very hard to do but it’s easy to say, and in Walmart’s case, the way to regain the initiative in their storytelling was to embrace the conflict. The conflict is “service vs. winning,” and the winning side is kind of a no brainer. Everybody understood how Walmart was relentless in optimizing its operations and turning the screws to its suppliers and wringing every cost out of its supply chain. But the story question was: winning in service to what? Because if Walmart continued winning with no higher purpose then further enriching the Walton family and the shareholders of Walmart stock, then it would always be the villain in that story.
The marketers in that room have no difficulty accepting that. I think the issue, as Stephen told me later, was that when he went back to Lee Scott and Eduardo Castro-Wright, the executive leadership of Walmart who had put their entire adult lives into the company, he was concerned. He didn’t admit this at the time, but later he told me he was concerned that the response would be something like, “Oh, here they come with another new way to tell our story,” but that isn’t what he heard.
He went back to the men who had devoted their lives to Walmart with a story about servant leadership and a conflict between service and winning, and the response he got was, “Wow, this is what it used to feel like around here before we became everybody’s punching bag.” It’s not a matter of making up a new story. Clearly, it’s a matter of discovering and articulating the story that was already there.
Drew Neisser: I’m going to pause so we can take a break, but there were several things that you said that I just want to call to listeners’ attention. First of all, this is bigger than marketing, and you needed to get the senior executives involved because there were operational things that related to that, employee hiring things that related to it.
Second thing is, in finding this notion of conflict, I would say that brands and the folks that I meet typically aren’t necessarily big fans of conflict, so embracing conflict in and of itself is a big issue. Look, you can’t turn on a good drama without conflict and even in comedy there’s conflict, so understanding and embracing conflict is number two. This notion of character and motivation, for anybody who studies Simon Sinek, the notion of why and motivation are exactly the same thing. They fall into place.
I think it’s a great place for us to take a break and just digest this moment of bigger than marketing. You’ve got to get the whole team involved, identify the conflict, identify the character and the notion of that character, and then find their motivation. All right. We’ll be right back.
Drew Neisser: We’ve got a group of CMOs here and CMOs that are listening, and we’ve outlined some of the key things already in terms of embracing conflict. You’re attuned as a storyteller and a story finder if you will, but is there a way that the listeners can get a handle on how do to discover their conflict?
David Altschul: Oh, um, it’s not easy. I mean, I know how we do it. We quite deliberately do not ask our clients, “What’s your conflict?” It would be like if I asked you, “What’s the main conflict that organizes your life and that you struggle with on an ongoing basis?” It’s very hard to answer that.
What we do is—and this is what Character Camp is all about—we teach the elements that make a story engaging and we use that as a framework for brainstorming about the product, the brand, the competition, the category that you’re in, and then we elicit lists and lists of descriptors. Then we look through those lists for the apparent conflict. That idea of serving versus winning came out of what we found in Sam’s book and also in the brainstorming that we did in that session. Now that wasn’t the only conflict that came up. They’re in a retail space, so there was a conflict between needs and wants. They were selling food at that point, so there was a conflict between virtue and pleasure.
We know what some of the big category conflicts are and, having done this for 20 years and several hundred brands, we have an idea of what kinds of conflicts are likely to arise in a commercial environment. “Spirited vs. sensible” is frequently a conflict that you see in-store brands, for example, or I would say the “practical vs. adventurous” and “safety vs. freedom” in the car industry and so forth.
We understand from experience some of the conflicts that are likely to arise, we look through all the lists of descriptors and we find the conflicts that have emerged from brainstorming in that particular brand, then we end up with a list of anywhere from a couple dozen to 40 or 50 conflicts. As in that conflict between service and winning or between spirited and sensible, understand that these are not conflicts between good things and bad things. This is not a story about a conflict between a winner and a loser, or between virtue and vice—those stories are too easy. The audience knows how those are supposed to come out.
The stories that really capture attention and persist are the stories between two good but opposing energies. “Serving vs. winning. “Which one would you give up? You can’t give up either one, right? Or in the case of Old Spice—which I do have permission to talk about—”the good guy vs. the player,” “fantasy vs. reality.” Which one of those are you going to give up? In order to live a full life, you have to go after both 100% knowing that you’re going to have to live with and wrestle with the conflict. Anyway, at Character Camp, we find the conflicts by eliciting and brainstorming, and then we have a process for sorting until we find the one that sits at the top of the list for that particular brand.
Drew Neisser: That is an exercise of experience that would be very difficult for those who don’t understand what goes into a story because you could find a great conflict but if you don’t understand the principles of storytelling it may not yield stories that will resonate.
One of my favorites that came out of your process was “strong vs. soft,” which is the Angel Soft thing. It’s so silly in that, you know, how can something be strong and soft? But if you think about it as a single father, he has to be strong and he has to be soft. In the B2B world, it gets trickier because we’re not dealing with consumer brands, but I think there’s an opportunity for storytelling on this big level because when you get it right, the employees who often represent the brand in so many different ways can align behind the story.
I’m curious, from your experience—I looked at your client list and it’s primarily B2C and those are the brands that have embraced story and I suspect it’s because they spend money on TV, etc.—do you have some B2B brands that you can speak to who understand story?
David Altschul: I would say, from our point of view, I get intuitively that that seems clear, but I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the question because, from our point of view, the story is the same. Take Walmart, for example.
I should still take a step back because we need to understand what we’re talking about when we say “story.” Our definition of story is “a sequence of events that communicates meaning.” You put a brand out into the world, and whether its audience is consumers, suppliers, regulators, nonprofits, or churches, it doesn’t matter, the audience is going to have a whole range of people. When you put a new brand out into the world, it begs the question, so what does this mean?
In a commercial environment, there’s a default, and the default is the money story; it means that there’s a particular product or service that has certain attributes and it costs a certain amount of money. The story of the exchange. That’s basically the commodity story, but the question in the mind of the audience is—if you’re trying to create a brand as opposed to a commodity—what else is there? Is there something that lives alongside this commodity story, the story of the exchange? Is there something that these people believe in other than they happen to have a machine that makes shoes and they charge a certain amount of money for their shoes?
In order to answer that question, the audience is stringing together all of their experiences with the brand. The marketing communications is the last, not the least, but the last of it. The first thing is, where did I hear about it? What does it do, how does it perform, where do I buy it? What does it cost, what does it look like? The question is about design in a retail environment—the retail design, the merchandising, the pricing, the where you find it, all of those are story questions. And if there’s a coherent meaningful brand that has some value, those will all line up in a way that adds to a sense that there’s meaning there. That this group of people believes something beyond just “wouldn’t it be nice to make money,” that that belief is not just making them nicer people, it’s providing them with a purpose, which gives you a reason to understand why they might be better at making those shoes than the guy who simply had a machine.
Drew Neisser: You’re preaching to the choir here, and there’s no doubt that I preach it. I’m sorry, I’m mixing metaphors, speaking of bad storytelling. I’m particularly thinking of the CEOs and CMOs of industries that have been hit hard. Travel—you’re an airline right now, you’re a hotel chain right now, you just furloughed a bunch of people, and, at some point in time, you’re going to come back. Now those are B2C brands and a B2B brand is saying and I can hear them saying, “Yeah, that was nice, but my pipeline right now really matters. I need leads in the pipeline, because I want to keep the staff that I have and if I as the marketer can’t deliver those…” In that context, help us sell why story matters.
David Altschul: Here’s what I would say. The project that we’re doing right now—the one that I mentioned that we turned inside out—I can’t tell you the name of the brand, but it’s a very large global retailer with thousands of stores. The important audience for their story, for the meaning of their brand, is clearly not just the customers who walk in. It’s the people who work at the counter, who ultimately are the frontline storytellers. It’s the franchisees who own many of those stores. It’s the suppliers who either are or are not delivering to them. It’s the government, who’s going to help them survive or not.
The marketers and the communications people that we’re dealing with are, like everybody in this group and everybody I know, running around putting out fires frantically. But the whole point of gathering a sense of the meaning of that story is to provide an organizing principle so that even as you’re rushing around putting out fires, you have some sense of whether this particular move or that move—you’re opening this store, you’re not opening that store; you’re supplying certain kinds of merchandise, and you’re limiting others—all the decisions that you have to make are based on some kind of fundamental organizing principle that adds up to coherent meaning. Because most of our clients are much larger, with the exception of some of those in the hospitality business, they already know that they’re going to survive so, in addition to putting out fires, they’re trying to put out fires in a way that leaves the brand clearer and stronger than before.
You can’t help but make the brand clearer in a crisis like this because your audience is watching what you do. The question is, can you do all those things in a way that provides evidence of your values, beliefs, the meaning of your brand, and the purpose of the organization? That’s the whole point. If you get the story right, it provides you an organizing principle and, not insignificantly, it makes all that firefighting much more efficient. Every time you set out to do a press release or make a decision about pricing or make a decision about hours or something, you’re not starting over with a blank slate trying to figure it out, or at the very least, just looking around and seeing what every one of your competitors is doing. There is some core guiding principle, an understanding of what the brand is about because, think about it, we have brands that have lived from before the Great Depression, through the Great Depression, through the war, through the 60s, through the financial crisis. It’s not fun, but it does tend to elevate the people who know who they are and have some sense of why we’re doing this that goes beyond just survival.
Drew Neisser: I could see a listener saying, “What you’re saying is that companies need purpose and a clear purpose as a North Star to drive their business,” and I could see CEOs saying, “Great. I have that, I’ve got my purpose.” They call it a mission statement and they’ve got their values and so forth, but they’re not articulating it as story. They don’t see it as conflict.
David Altschul: Actually, that’s the real difference.
Drew Neisser: They see it as a promise to the marketplace that they’ve made, right? We’re promising that for folks in this category, we’re going to be the best choice for them right now because we’re reliable and cost-effective. That’s our guiding principle and story doesn’t come up and it’s not going to come up, but what we’re trying to do in this conversation is say that either we come up with words that they will buy and sneak in story, or we make story something so important and a solution to how to get out of this as well as how to accelerate growth when you come out of it. I know I’ve laid a lot on you, defending story right here in the boardrooms of America.
David Altschul: The inclination to understand and articulate the purpose of an organization is good. I support that because that’s ultimately where we go, that’s basically what we did for Walmart. That’s what we did for Amazon. That’s what we did for Wendy’s. In the world of story, there is a connection between meaning and purpose, but it’s not the same thing. I think the problem with a lot of the effort to define purpose in marketing is that it tends to go straight to purpose and it tends to conflate meaning and purpose. Not very long ago, I learned that every business should have a mission and a vision, but I could never remember which one was which.
Drew Neisser: Or me. Don’t tell anybody, but I can never keep those straight.
David Altschul: Well, meaning and purpose are kind of treated the same way these days, like there were quote marks around them and an ampersand in the middle, but in the world of story, while meaning and purpose are connected, they’re not the same thing.
Drew Neisser: Okay, let’s define the difference.
David Altschul: The meaning is what you believe. Remember, we started with the conflict, so, say you’ve got a conflict between service and winning, as in the case of Walmart, and the question is, “What do you believe?” which is really saying, “What do you believe about how to live in a world where you have that conflict, you need to go after both things 100%, and you know that they are tugging in opposite directions?”
In the case of Walmart, the bottom line is, we believe that, at our best, we should be a force for good, because that covers both sides of that. Then that leads to the purpose. What is the belief that holds the organization together? And then—because this is the thing, the meaning of the story is what you believe, what you as an organization believe, what you as a team believe, the belief you share with your audience—the purpose is what you do.
You go out into the world and you do something. You go out into the marketplace and you create stores and you merchandise like crazy in order to save people money so they can live better. You can see the conflict right in there. The “save money” is the winning and the “live better” is the service, but it leads you step by step from the conflict that you’re wrestling with to the what do we believe, what do we uniquely have to offer? That’s what story is about. Story communicates some sense of wisdom about how to live in a conflict that can’t be resolved.
That’s what every story is about, and so a marketing story is: What’s the conflict? What is our particular take on this conflict, of our category? What do we believe about it and what purpose does that lead to? Purpose that’s articulated without conflict and without touching back to the core meaning and beliefs, is just unavoidably going to seem shallow and not very helpful in a crisis.
You know, I have something. I just got this yesterday from this guy in the hospitality business. We did a project some years ago for a company in Austin and the CEO was just elevated to run the parent organization which does a lot of food and restaurants. I asked him how he was doing and he said:
“A significant part of our portfolio is in the food and hospitality space. Early on we hypothesized that our mega conflict during this crisis is between liberty and security.”
So, understand, he’s been through the process. He understands that in a difficult situation, the first thing you do is try and figure out the conflict.
“Once we were able to name that as our conflict, it provided all of our teams the space to voice their concerns without fear of reprisal or judgment. Those who feared for their economic feet could voice their concerns alongside those who feared for the health of themselves in our community.”
That’s the liberty on one side and the security on the other side.
“The team’s courage to name the conflict, describe it as unresolvable and create a space to safely examine our vulnerability has been the birthplace of countless ideas. I wish I could share with you that we have found the place. I cannot, but I can share with you that we have found many new and interesting places and, strangely, we are better people for it.”
I didn’t solicit that in order to read it to you, it was part of the conversation that I’m having with people who’ve been through this process. You can see in a part of the marketplace that is most desperately impacted that the first thing that this leader is doing is trying to find the conflict territory that this has thrust us into because the crisis cannot help but amplify both sides of whatever conflict you’re living in.
Drew Neisser: Right, and so I think the interesting part is—I’m going to wrap it up in this section and then get to the CMOs who have been so patiently listening—story helps you understand, and this framework that you provide helps you understand and then make decisions based on your understanding of the conflict that you live in. That kind of understanding is huge in a time where we don’t really understand a lot.
David Altschul: Right, so it’s an organizing principle and a decision-making tool.
Drew Neisser: Exactly. All right. We’re going to take a break and we’ll be right back.
Drew Neisser: Okay, we’re back, and we’ve been talking about story as an organizational framework, as a way of helping your organization understand where you are today. I want to open it up to the CMOs who are listening. Raise a hand if you have a question and I’ll introduce you. Kevin Alansky, CMO of Higher Logic, excellent. Kevin, what’s your question?
Kevin Alansky: Yes. David, often, at least from my perspective, where I get push and pull internally is you’ve got brand and demand gen/lead gen campaigns often as separate initiatives, but what are your thoughts? Can they be pulled together into one? I think Drew had said it best that often a lot of the pressure that we’re under is “give me pipeline, give me pipeline.” How do you tell that story incorporated into the demand gen? Because the demand gen campaign is always going to trump a brand campaign. The brand campaign is more difficult to show the ROI, the payback, that sort of thing. How is it best to weave the story when you know something is a bit more lead gen focused?
David Altschul: I’m not sure if this is going to be responsive, you’ll have to tell me, but my sense is that, from the CMOs position, story is the lever, the reason why the CMO should have a seat at the strategy table. This is what happened with Stephen Quinn, who started out as head of advertising and had a 10-year run at Walmart and slowly impacted everything. I’m sure that when they first hired a Head of Marketing, they imagined it had something to do with driving foot traffic, but it quickly became clear that if you understood the story and you were using that as an organizing principle, then it would have an impact on where you bought real estate and where you built stores and how you merchandised that all of those things so that there would be a coherent meaning to it.
Actually, Neil Lindsay has done the same thing at Amazon. When we first started working with them eight years ago, he was the most senior marketer, but his job was selling devices. Amazon was the farthest thing from a marketing organization, but he’s slowly bootstrapped that organization to a point where marketing is leading the definition of the meaning and purpose of the organization—the why, the one piece that they had never bothered to communicate before—and then working backward to infuse that sense of why into every decision that they make, which is not just about how they advertise, although it impacts that, it’s also about how they treat their merchant partners in the marketplace, how they deal with government regulators, how they deal with corporate communications, how they relate to, not just communicate about, the fulfillment center workers and so forth. From my point of view, I understand that there’s pressure to deliver immediate results, and maybe I’m just punting when I say that’s not the part of it that I’m most familiar with.
Drew Neisser: Well, let me take a stab. There’s some math here that can help you. Brent Adamson of Gartner has done a lot of research on this and, first of all, let’s agree that this isn’t a question of a lead becomes a client. That’s a long process, right? There are meetings, demos, bids, pilots, all sorts of things that happen, and what happens is, if we take the demand gen approach and just say we’re going to have a different campaign for CFO is versus IT versus Security versus so forth, they’re still going to all come to the table and then they’re going to see different pieces of this brand. They’re 2.2 times less likely to buy your product if each of those individual people on the buying committee have a different perspective of your brand. Story becomes the thing that unifies it, so that they all say, “I have a common understanding of this company.”
That doesn’t mean you’re not going to necessarily create content that is of specific interest to an individual target in order to get them to raise their hand and say, “I want to talk,” and you may still even need some language that speaks to a CFO versus IT versus a CEO, but the brand story, if there’s inconsistency, it’ll bite you on the other end. It may not bite you right away in terms of lead capture, but it’ll bite you in terms of close, and close, ultimately, is the deal. The problem in B2B marketing is that the sales cycle is so long, you don’t see that until later.
David Altschul: Thank you, Drew, that’s exactly right. In fact, you’re reminding me of what we skipped over in the early part, the distinction between story framework and storytelling. The whole point of understanding the framework of the story is so that you can be free to tell it in whatever way is appropriate to any particular audience and still be confident at the end of the day that it means the same thing.
When I say organizing principle, what I mean is that you’re defining what the story means. The early lead generation people and the product development people and the people who are doing the actual communications—and the even the people who are writing the service manuals—they’re going to be communicating in very different words, they are going to be voicing the story differently, but as the head of marketing, you are the steward that understands how each of those different voices can still add up to channel the same story.
Drew Neisser: JD or Dave, do either of you have a question you want to ask? Okay, JD Dillon, who is the CMO of Enphase Energy, a California based solar energy company.
JD Dillon: Fantastic thus far. I want to get to the “how” behind some of what you talked about. My company is full of engineers and they fashion themselves as—and they are—great problem solvers. With problem-solving, you want to get to an answer. With conflict, often the process, the debate, the discussion helps draw a rich answer. What I’m trying to grasp is how to best get people to embrace the discussion around conflict and not just say “the answer is easy, just sell cheaper” after about 15 minutes.
David Altschul: Yes, no, I understand perfectly. In fact, I just schooled on that a couple of months ago. We were doing a project at Amazon, I think in the corporate communication space, and we were making some, I’m sure, very wise recommendation when senior corporate communications guy said, “You don’t understand. The people you talk to here—the marketers, the corporate communications people, the people that understand story—we’re 18% of the organization. Everybody else is an operator or an engineer.” So, yeah. I get it, it’s heavy lifting. One of the things that has helped us a lot is to keep clear which metaphor you’re in. Story is not the only metaphor for guiding decision making and business.
In fact, in our experience there are three principal metaphors: there’s war, science, and story. War is probably what your sales group is working in. It’s basically how you operate in a competitive landscape. Science is almost certainly where your engineering teams are, and story is frequently where the marketers are. The important thing is, first of all, you have to meet the people in the metaphor they’re in.
You can’t go to the engineers and say, “I’ve got a better story.” They say, “Oh, yeah, that’s the bullshit part, but I still have to solve the problem.” You have to understand that they’re working in the metaphor of science. I mean, they’re doing science, I understand, but I mean in terms of thinking about how the world works. They’re operating in terms of problem solution. Salespeople are operating in a war metaphor in terms of battle, and how do they win it.
The best thing I can say in a general way is, one, if you understand the different toolsets—the competitive toolset as the war metaphor, the analytical toolset as the science metaphor, and the story metaphor about meaning and purpose—then you can use them because there’s a positive iterative. The scientists are going to generate a lot of data. That data doesn’t mean anything until they develop a hypothesis, in which case they are in the world of story whether they like it or not. The data generates patterns that are not visible to the naked eye, so there is a positive iterative cycle between story and science, for example.
The scientists come up with the data set. The data reveals patterns. The patterns yield a hypothesis. And then you go back and collect more data. The data by itself is no use at all, so the trick is, first of all, to meet them in the metaphor they’re in. Indicate that this is a process for approaching story in a systematic way, for approaching meaning in a systematic way that will allow them to more effectively communicate with everybody that they’re communicating to, and that will help them use the data to make meaningful choices. I wouldn’t go to a group of engineers and say, “forget about solving the problem, embrace the conflict, and don’t worry.” That’s not how they live.
Drew Neisser: We’ve heard it now, meet them in their metaphor. I love that. Okay, Dave Bornmann, CMO of Naylor Association Solutions, you’ve been patiently waiting. Do you have a question for us?
Dave Bornmann: Yeah, I think I’m still struggling just a little bit around the meaning vs. purpose part. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about that. I feel like we’ve got a good purpose and we’re living our purpose right now in this crisis by many actions. If you understand our purpose, you’d see, but I guess I’m just struggling with that distinction that you were talking to.
David Altschul: Can you tell me what the purpose is? How it’s articulated?
Dave Bornmann: Yeah. We as a company are devoted to building stronger associations.
David Altschul: Got it.
Dave Bornmann: We live in the world of associations, so we provide services to them. A lot of what we’re doing right now is providing great content to help them think through how to manage now that events are canceled, how to manage now that advertising is down. We’re just pumping out information to help them do better.
David Altschul: I would guess, not knowing your business or your category, that one of their conflicts, for example, is probably “independent vs. connected” or “autonomous vs. social” or something in that “individual vs. social” realm. This crisis is accentuating that tension because people need evermore to be connected and the crisis is pushing them apart. Your purpose, the way you’ve articulated it, definitely describes what you might do for them. The question is, what is it in the organization about how you approach the conflict between, say, fitting in and standing out.
Since I don’t know your business, I don’t know what it would be, but what is it that you guys uniquely bring to the party? And then, frame that in terms of what you want to get out of it too, not just what you’re doing for somebody else. The purpose is not going to be convincing to your audience if you simply articulate it as an altruistic thing that you’re doing for them. You want to see that it costs you something to do it because that’s the indicator that it’s supporting a belief that goes beyond just, “Well, this is the way we figured out how to most effectively make money.” From the way you’re describing it, clearly there is something there, I just don’t know your company well enough to know what it would be. Does that make sense?
Dave Bornmann: Yep.
Drew Neisser: Alright, well we’ve covered a lot of territory, and I’m going to recap some of the things that we’ve talked about so far for the folks that have hung on this long, which I’m so grateful for.
Story is a metaphor for looking at your business, and that’s really important. It’s versus the war metaphor and so forth. In the show notes, we’ll show a little wonderful nifty chart that Character has created to show the difference between the war metaphor and the science metaphor. We’ll include that. In this metaphor of story, a key component is conflict and understanding the tension between two positive things—think strong and soft—not between bad and good because that’s a sad, tired old story that we all know the answer to. The good guy wins. That’s not what we’re looking for.
David Altschul: “Strong vs. weak” would not have made a very convincing platform for Angel Soft.
Drew Neisser: Exactly. So, we’ve got that. Then, after this conflict, we need to get the character and the motivation for why this conflict matters and what’s behind it. Then, in order to get your organization involved in this process, it helps to understand what metaphor they’re operating on, and I love that. Meet them in their metaphor. What a great idea, which is really just how to communicate with someone as they are and understand where they’re coming from. I’m going to circle back to Lincoln to wrap this thing out.
In Team of Rivals, you know that Lincoln gathered up a group of phenomenally talented individuals who were all competitive with him. Not all of them liked him.
David Altschul: Talk about embracing conflict.
Drew Neisser: Yes, he embraced that conflict. He brought them all in there and, one by one, he won each of them over through his storytelling. But one guy, Stanton, his Secretary of War, never ever bought story. He would sit there with his arms crossed, waiting for Abe to finish his story. It was hilarious, but nonetheless, Stanton, who was probably the biggest holdout in loving Lincoln, was the one who ended up loving him the most. And it was just a fascinating story. Even though he personally wasn’t in the moment on those stories he just so appreciated the man. He was one of those cut to the chase kind of guys.
But anyway, speaking of cutting to the chase. I want to wrap the show up. David, thank you so much for joining the show. Dave, Kevin, JD, thank you for sitting in. To the listeners, as always, I’m so grateful for your attention. I know a lot of things are going on in your life. I’m hoping that you are being smart and making really good decisions as you hunker down and we all get through this. Until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.