Last week I wrote about my participation in the BIF-3 Collaborative Innovation Summit, an event sponsored by the Business Innovation Factory in Providence. The BIF innovation summits make use of a unique storytelling format. Their goal is "to let great people tell great stories," which are later available to all in their Innovation Story Studio.
Why employ a storytelling format at a business innovation event? Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal columnist who was one of the Summit’s hosts offered a succinct explanation. "I love the Summit. It's an intimate setting with a lot of smart people who are talking about something that is often overlooked. Applying creativity and out-of-the-box thinking is critical to running a business . . . I think we live in a culture where people think business is about the P&L. But it's really about people and ideas. I learned a lot by listening to the storytellers."
A few weeks after my participation in the BIF Summit, Chris Wall was guest lecturer in the MIT seminar I am teaching this semester. Chris is Vice Chairman, Creative Ogilvy at Ogilvy & Mather (O&M), one of the top brand marketing and advertising agencies in the world, where he is responsible for overseeing creative efforts in advertising, direct and interactive marketing. He gave an inspiring talk focusing on what it takes to build the value and power of a brand – perhaps the single most important asset any company has. A major theme in his lecture was the importance of storytelling as a key way to develop the image of your brand with your intended audience.
O&M has been IBM's ad agency for a while now. Through the years, I have worked closely with Chris and his colleagues, including the periods when they created the very successful e-business campaign in 1997, and then some wonderful Linux ads a few years later. I have learned from Chris and others at O&M the incredible power of brands in the marketplace and the importance of having clear, simple messages to communicate what your brand is all about. Above all, I have learned that if you want your major initiatives to be successful in the marketplace, - e.g., the Internet, Linux, On Demand Business, - you have to work really hard to associate your brand with these new innovations, and infuse the brand with their key qualities in a way that differentiates you from what everyone else is doing. I wanted the class to hear directly from Chris what such work is all about.
He started out by talking about the 1964 New York World's Fair, which had made a big impression on him when he visited it as a child. Just about all major US companies were represented at the Fair, - including ATT, GM, Ford, Kodak, DuPont and IBM. Their futuristic looking pavilions and fancy exhibits were all attempting to convey positive, optimistic feelings about the future of technology, business - and their brands. Where are those companies now, forty three years later? Some are gone, others are shadows of their former selves, and a very few have survived and continue to be leaders in their industry.
Can you still engender positive, optimistic feelings about technology, business and brands in today's more cynical times? Chris definitely believes you can, and that is a major part of what his work at O&M is all about. He talked to the class about the huge challenge of trying to re-build the IBM brand in the mid 1990s, given that IBM was just coming out of its near-death experience. He focused on three key objectives for the brand: be a part of the future instead of part of the past; engage a younger audience; and prove that IBM gets it. And, of course, the huge "it" that we were trying to prove IBM got was the Internet, which happened to be rising all around us at the time.
The e-business campaign that O&M came up with for IBM was a resounding success. The campaign won a number of top awards, including the prestigious Grand Effie in 2002, as well as a Gold Effie in 1999. It helped associate IBM with the Internet and with doing business in the Internet age. It totally revitalized IBM's brand and propelled it into the future.
Chris explained the difference between trying to establish a brand through mindless jingles, or through paternalistic assertions that no one believes, versus engaging your audience in a conversation about the future. When conversing with someone, you talk about what is in your mind, your aspirations, your questions, your doubts, your frustrations. You tell the audience both what you know and what you don't know. You use a mixture of serious and humorous messages to convey different kinds of feelings. In short, you are creating and telling a story about your brand. And, the more powerful, important and complex the messages you are trying to convey, the more important it is to do so by telling a compelling but simple story.
In short, a successful market strategy, - especially one where you are trying to communicate something new and potentially disruptive, - is one that resonates emotionally with its intended audience. Faith, said Chris, is a big factor in such a campaign, perhaps the most powerful factor of all. You want your audience to have faith in you. You want them to believe in your vision and in your ability to fulfill your promises. You want them rooting for you to win. A loyal customer base will give a business the time it takes to make a new product successful in the marketplace, as well as be patient when its products get into trouble, - as long as they feel that their loyalty is not taken for granted.
This is really difficult to pull off, which is why so many brands lose their luster over time to competitors whose products and services are sometimes clearly superior, but often not all that different. Looking back at the 1964 New York Worlds Fair, - which I also attended, - and reflecting on what happened to all those powerful companies with their great exhibits, you can see what an incredible challenge it is for a business, - and its brand, - to endure year after year after year.