4 Ways to Fail at Brand Storytelling and a Bunch of Ways to Succeed: #story12 Rohit Bhargava

Reinvention Summit 2 is history, but I’m continuing to recap, synthesize, and expand on its 20 excellent sessions.

If you ever have a chance to see Rohit Bhargava deliver a presentation, do it. He uses image-heavy/text-light slides, projects an easygoing, entertaining presentation style, and has brilliant things to say. I had the pleasure during the recent Reinvention Summit 2.

Rohit also kicked off his talked with at least three fascinating stories from history. I can neither do them justice nor convey as well as Rohit did their relationship to his message, but the point is that stories wonderfully enhance a presentation.

Here’s a very nutshell overview of Rohit’s message. You can also get a sense of it from a Storify piece put together by Tyler Hurst.

Four mistakes that marketers tend to make when attempting to integrate story into their branding, Rohit says, are:

  • Storify everything. The brands say they are telling us their story (very commonly on “About” pages), but what they offer isn’t really a story. The example Rohit gives is the Our Story page for Purdy State Bank, which isn’t so much a story as a dry recitation of dates and events in the bank’s history.
  • Focus on testimonials. In particular, Rohit emphasizes brands — like BlackBerry — that try to collect stories from customers but set up barriers for the customer, such as BlackBerry’s lengthy and restrictive form.
  • Use corporate lingo. Rohit’s example here is United Airlines’s ad headline: “We’re improving the quality of our onboard product …” Why not just say something like, “We’re making our planes more comfortable to be aboard”? Rohit also cites a disconnect in that he found the bathrooms out of order on a recent United flight. Not such an improved onboard product.
  • Create an “impossible” experience. Case in point: A page on the Herman Miller site (pictured above) in which it’s actually impossible to mouseover the vertical pieces and glean any meaningful message.

Happily, Rohit offers many examples of brands who do storytelling well, keeping in mind the basic story flow and five story archetypes pictured. Just a couple of his case studies:

Lynda Resnick’s marketing of replica’s of Jacqueline Kennedy’s fake reals. You can read the backstory here, but the gist is that Resnick bought the Franklin Mint, rescued it from disarray, bought Jackie Kennedy’s fake pearls (originally purchased for $35) at a Sotheby’s auction for $211,000, and then made $26 million selling reproductions of the pearls through the Franklin Mint. Resnick wrote:

If there is one venture that captured the essence of what was best about our business at the Mint, I think it would have to be the story of Jackie Kennedy’s pearls. Nothing I’ve ever done is more illustrative of the search for intrinsic value than that.

Intrinsic value, of course, was the story behind the pearls.

The whimsical marketing of the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel in Amsterdam. This ad copy from the hotels home page is the tip of the iceberg in how the hotel markets its story of mediocrity:

The Hans Brinker Budget Hotel has been proudly disappointing travellers for forty years. Boasting levels of comfort comparable to a minimum-security prison, the Hans Brinker also offers some plumbing and an intermittently open canteen serving a wide range of dishes based on runny eggs.

Other Hans Brinker Budget Hotel, Amsterdam services and amenities include:

  • A basement bar with limited light and no fresh air.
  • A concrete courtyard where you can relax and enjoy whatever sunshine is able to pass the high buildings on either side on the extremely infrequent days when it’s actually sunny.
  • An elevator that almost never breaks down between floors.
  • A bar serving slightly watered down beer.
  • Amusing witticisms and speculations about former guests’ sexual preferences scrawled on most surfaces.
  • The Hans Brinker Budget Hotel, Amsterdam Luxury Ambassadorial Suite (featuring the Hans Brinker’s one and only bath-tub).
  • Doors that lock.

Where does this one fit in among the archetypes below? I’m thinking it’s more of an underdog story.