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Patrick Hanlon

My interview with Pat Hanlon, author of Primal Branding on the role of stories at creating great brands.

Joel Rubinson: You have said that a great brand needs a great creation story. What do you mean by that and why is it so important?

Patrick Hanlon: Actually, what I have said is that great brands have great brand narratives. The ‘creation’ story is critical, because it is the foundation of the brand narrative. Every company was started somewhere by someone who had a great idea that was written on the back of a napkin, on an envelope, they thought they had a better way of doing things. Often these are superhuman stories of great courage—or even wrong-mindedness (Steve Jobs quit college, Bill Gates and Edwin Land dropped out of Harvard). We all know the stories of how eBay started in a spare bedroom, Google started in a dorm room, HP started in a garage, Burt’s Bees in a chicken coop, Phil Knight sold Nikes from the trunk of his car. These humble beginnings not only stir something in the American imagination. They also provide a frame for who you are, and what you stand for. This is critical in today’s world, where Enron, tainted Chinese products and faked identities on the Internet have started everyone wondering “Who are you—no, really?!”.

Joel Rubinson: If a brand doesn’t have a great story yet, maybe because it’s new, how would you use research to construct one that is most meaningful to consumers?

Patrick Hanlon: We’ve done a lot of qualitative work lately looking at the core target and defining who that target is (it’s often not just one group, but two or three micro-targets bundled together). Because everyone wants to keep their core and expand the brand, understanding who these groups are is critical. We work to differentiate these groups, pulling apart the strands and decode what their picture of the ideal brand is. Much of that includes piecing together a brand narrative that is relevant, exciting, resonates with consumers and provides a vision moving forward. Happily, our methodology often lets us create a narrative that springs right out of the brand’s emotional strengths with its core consumers.

Joel Rubinson: Are stories more important than emphasis on product features? How do you convince marketers to change their mindset and what do they do differently as a result?

Patrick Hanlon: Stories aren’t a replacement for your RFB, USP, RDB or other relevant TLA. Stories give your unique features and benefits a context, a place to resonate, become relevant, and develop meaning for consumers. Stories come wrapped in emotion. That said, so many marketers assume that the world is holding their breath for their incremental adjustments to their products/services. It just ain’t so.

Differentiated features and benefits were terrific 50 years ago when those F/Bs were truly differentiated. But in today’s world we have dozens of televisions to choose from (all likely made in the same five overseas factories). We have over 500 different automobile styles, hundreds of beverages, a seemingly unlimited supply of just about anything. (When was the last time you walked into a store and it was out of something you needed?)

We all know that people aren’t driving just for convenience. There is an emotional connection to cars, jeans, computers, even coffee that runs deeper than the product itself. If you don’t think so, try replacing some 15-year old’s iPod with another MP3 player.

Brand narratives celebrate the icons, rituals and lexicon that are an important part of your product/service experience. The HP garage is part of their story and it’s an icon. Ordering an “iced grande skinny decaf latte” is a part of Starbucks’ unique lexicon and is exclusive to that experience. Downloading iPhone “apps” is a ritual that helps make their product more interesting. Buttoning your fly was a ritual that’s part of the Levi’s 501 story. In some way, these elements seem like the new “FB”s. About 15 years ago, Levis’ had a hot tub in one of their stores. People would wear their shrink-to-fit jeans in the hot tub, take them off, put them in a dryer in the store and an hour later wear them home. To this day, people in focus groups talk about that…people who never actually experienced or even saw the tub. The incident was just part of the mythology. Whether real or imagined, a story. That’s why the narrative is so strong. It becomes a part of our collective imagination.

We all want to believe that everyone is going to care about our features/benefits but, in reality, we also know that people make purchase decisions from their gut. Who they ‘feel better’ about. It’s not likely that consumers would buy a product with better features/benefits from a company they’ve never heard of, and that’s where having a great brand narrative can inform, adjust perceptions, and help to persuade.

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