What’s in your sacred bundle?

A two-foot long grizzly bear’s paw, a red flannel and an old twist of tobacco. These are a few of the items kept at the American Museum of Natural History in a sacred bundle that belonged to a Native American tribe.

Sacred bundles were guarded as precious items and used in ceremonies. As the tribal leader lifted each object out of the bundle, he related the story associated with that object. They were stories that were important to the tribe, that needed to be remembered and passed on through the generations. These stories related the tribe’s values and beliefs, reinforcing their culture and their identity.

Sacred bundles in business.

I got to thinking of how we can apply this idea of a sacred bundle to business, in the form of stories that relate our core values and serve to reinforce our organisation’s culture. The stories that represent the heart and soul of our organisation. Stories that tell our history and lay the foundation of our core identity. They keep us on track and provide a sense of continuity no matter what changes may be occurring.

Now I’m not saying you have to have a physical bundle of objects, although it’s certainly possible. Perhaps you have letters or pictures that can be framed that represent specific moments in the life of the business. Some companies keep the first dollar they made. Sports teams retire jerseys of memorable players and hang them up in arenas to honour their contributions to sport, reminding the team of their history and inspiring them to strive to emulate the players who came before them. Whether or not you use objects, the important thing is that you identify your sacred bundle of stories.

How can you find your organisation’s sacred stories?

Look for 5-10 stories that relate significant events that impacted the business. They could be the founding moments, changes in direction, and people who made an impact along the way. Include personal stories – a leader’s values and priorities can be embodied in their personal story while making a powerful connection with the audience.

Just like the tribes of ancient times, the stories in your business are a reminder of where you’ve come from and where you’re going. They solidify your culture and strengthen the group’s focus.

If you’re labouring to identify the stories at the heart of your company’s culture, give me a call. I’m always keen to listen.

The terroir of branding.

In early November, Marlborough winemakers raised a glass to celebrate the trademarking of the Appellation Marlborough Wine (AMW) certificate in international markets. The AMW label ensures global consumers that 100% of the Sauvignon Blanc in that wine was grown in the Marlborough region.

The intent is to “distinguish quality producers from bulk blends.” Current labeling laws require only 85% of a wine to be from the region listed on the label.

Why would Marlborough winemakers see making a distinction beneficial?

First, we have to understand the concept of terroir. Historically, protecting terroir is what led to the development of appellations. It is why we have Grand Crus from single vineyards in Burgundy, and why Champagne is commonly used to refer to sparkling wine (although in fact it only refers to wine produced in the Champagne region according to strict regulations and methods).

What is terroir?

Terroir, as it applies to wine, is more than the region where the vines were grown. It encompasses the many factors that go into making the wine. Things like soil, climate, location, the vines (age, health, vigour), vineyard practices and the decisions of the winemaker.

Every variable combines to create the unique terroir of that wine – what makes it original and why it cannot be replicated exactly anywhere else.

Terroir as a point of difference

The AMW certificate elevates the status of the Marlborough region as something globally unique, the Sauvignon Blanc distinct from any others, and protects the reputation of the terroir in producing world-class Sauvignon Blanc.

What does this have to do with branding? The same concepts behind a wine’s terroir can be applied to the goals of a brand — to differentiate, stand out from the crowd, be original and unable to be imitated.

To show your brand’s unique capabilities and stand out from your competitors, you need to define your terroir. What sets you apart? How are you different from your competitors? What makes you, you?

How do you define your terroir?

The first place to look is your origin story. It took a unique mixture of people, events, and timing to birth your brand. No one else has the same story. So tell it. By being authentic and unafraid to lay your story bare, you immediately differentiate from everyone else, and that’s your terroir. Embrace your origin story in your messaging so it is different from the run-of-the-mill messaging typical for your industry.

In this hypercompetitive world with so much focus on content, it’s crucial to be real and to stand out for being you. Consumers want unique experiences. They want to know you and what you stand for. How are you distinct from the masses, the generic brands, the impersonal entities? What ethos do you stand by?

Terroir sets a wine apart. It celebrates its origin and unique identity. Define your terroir and let it flavour everything you do.

The Law of Scarcity and the rebranding of the potato.

The King everywhere
*oil on canvas
*105,5 x 182 cm
*signed b.l.: R. Wartmüller / Berlin

Here’s a tale from the 1700’s that beautifully demonstrates the Law of Scarcity.

Old Frederick the Great ruled the Kingdom of Prussia for 46 years.  The the self-declared King of Prussia (nicknamed Old Fritz) had many military victories, was a gifted musician (he played the flute) and a fan of architecture. He was also into agriculture in a big way, developing land for crops, and founded Germany’s first veterinary school.

Perhaps the coolest thing about Old Fritz though, was his cunning plan to get his people to eat potatoes. He’d introduced the crop, along with turnips, to the country.  Now he needed to feed the nation, but bread was expensive and riots were going down. But peasants didn’t want to grow spuds – they were ugly, dirty and scored a big fat zero on the flavour grade. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French lawyer, politician and gastronome, said of the potato:  “I appreciate the potato only as a protection against famine; except for that, I know of nothing more eminently tasteless.”

The exclusive potato

So Frederick rebranded the potato, telling his people that the starchy tuber was royal, special, and declaring that it was not for peasants. He planted “exclusive” potato fields and posted guards to protect them. However, he secretly instructed his sentries to turn a blind eye should folk try to pilfer the potatoes, knowing that if they thought they worth guarding, they must be worth stealing. The law of scarcity went to work, and what happened?

Spuds were nicked under the cover of night, and soon potatoes were being grown and eaten everywhere!

The law of scarcity

The moment you know someone has something you can’t have, you want it even more. Nightclubs use the law of scarcity, creating entry queues to give the impression of limited entry. And diamonds? The only reason diamonds are considered rare and are expensive is they were marketed very well by De Beers. After finding a ton of diamonds that threatened to surpass demand, De Beers (accounting for 90% of the world’s diamond production and distribution) cut off the supply, creating scarcity and increasing demand.

In the 1930s De Beers marketed the diamond as being the only gemstone worthy of an engagement ring and similarly, Old Fritz the Potato King rebranded the potato as a food only for royalty.

PS:  To this day, potatoes are placed on the King’s grave on his birthday. And while it’s still a cheap food, it’s hard to deny the popularity of roasties, hash browns, French fries and good old mash.

Powerful story beginnings that captivate.

Powerful beginnings are the thrust of any good story.

I love spending a night out at the movies. The smell of the popcorn, the excitement in the atmosphere. The hush of anticipation when the lights go down. The opening lines, a powerful beginnings that take you on a journey to another world…

The first lines pull us into the storyteller’s world. No matter how a story is told – written, visual, or verbal – the first lines are crucial for catching us and drawing us in deeper.

Consider the following well-known story openers:

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”  Star Wars

“All children, except one, grow up.” Peter Pan

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984

“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” The Princess Bride

“Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.” 2001 – A Space Odyssey

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.” The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring

How did you feel when you read through these? Did you feel like you needed to know more? Or perhaps you recognised the story, and it all started coming back to you.

The right words clue us in that a story is coming, arresting the attention of our wired-for-story brains. Powerful beginnings give you bits of information that tantalise, sparking our imaginations. We start wondering about the scenario those words create and we need answers!

The essential first words give us enough information to begin to form a world, while leaving just enough unknown that we must continue to find the answers. 

What does this mean for your story?

In today’s saturated media world, powerful beginnings are critical to captivate your audience from the start.

You literally have seconds to grab attention to get your audience to:

  • Open your email
  • Listen to your presentation
  • Click on your ad
  • Open your website and read beyond the home page
  • Read your blog post
  • Watch your video

If they do none of these things, they’re not going to purchase your product or use your services. Information is coming at us from every direction, with no sign of stopping. If you don’t spark interest straight away people are just going to click on to the next thing.

So, how do you instantly captivate your audience?

First, to get results, you have to be noticed. Use storytelling elements that stimulate anticipation, build suspense, engage your audience and bring them into your world.

I’ve got a few tips and tricks to share with you.

Dial up curiosity.

Pose a question. State a strange fact that makes them question the world as they know it. Did you know the national animal of Scotland is the unicorn? Did you know that bees sting other bees to protect their nests from invaders? Or that the pharaohs of ancient Egypt lathered their slaves in honey to draw flies away from themselves? (True delegation of task, perhaps!). Arousing curiosity in the first 3 minutes makes for a powerful beginning. Just make sure your interesting fact has relevance to what you’re about to say – confusion is not the impression you want to make.

Introduce conflict.

Think like a mystery writer. Look for sources of conflict in your story and introduce them in the beginning, setting the context for what is to come. The audience knows a resolution must be down the track and they will listen and absorb the story until they get one.

Charles Dickens famously started A Tale of Two Cities with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” WTF? How can it be both? Starting a story with conflict instantly engages the part of our brain that tries to make sense of information while searching for something to relate it to.

Make it personal.

I recently opened a speech at the rural marketing conference with a personal story about my grandparents who were shareholders in the first dairy factory in NZ at Edendale. This told the audience something about me and established a common thread by linking my history to a rural industry. Telling a personal story is a powerful beginning to connect on a human level.

Be eccentric.

Dare to stand out. The unconventional ones always get noticed, and that’s what you need to get a foot in the door.

Richard Branson named his entire company Virgin in a bid for attention, and his continual wordplay (such as his autobiographies Losing My Virginity and later, Finding My Virginity) carries it on – we immediately know it has something to do with the eccentric Sir Richard, and we start conjuring up what we already know about him.

Outside the box thinking can lead you to creative, quirky ideas that grab attention. But beware of being too extreme, because if the rest of the story doesn’t live up to the start people will be left feeling disappointed.

Visual storytelling

My favourite thing on Facebook – and probably the entire worldwide web if I’m completely honest – is a group that is all pictures. But every one of those pictures tells a story – neigh, it MAKES a story. The group is called “As Seen Through Horses’ Ears” (now you can see why I wrote “neigh”) and every shot is taken by a rider, straight through the horse’s ears. It puts you in the picture – the epitome of visual storytelling.

The view from horseback is my favourite view, and through this Facebook group I get to see parts of the world I’ll never be able to visit. In the heat of summer, when flies are bothering the horses, the cicadas are deafening and crushed pennyroyal sends out a soft wafting aroma into the still air, I especially delight in images from the colder regions like Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Canada.

Imagine two photos. One of a snowy track in the woods, nothing else.

The second photo is the same setting, but in the centre of the frame are dark brown fluffy ears and through them, you see hoof prints in the deep, white snow. Suddenly, you’re the rider, on that horse’s back. You can smell the horse’s warm steamy breath, feel his muscles move beneath you, and hear the crackle and squish of the snow beneath his furry feet.

You find yourself wondering what’s on either side of the frame, or behind you. Are you alone in the frozen stillness, or are there three friends riding behind you, chatting about the beautiful day? What animals are beyond the ice-laden trees – watching in excited anticipation, attracted by the sounds, sights and scents?

When winter comes to Auckland, with relentless rain turning the paddocks to mud, riding is the furthest thing from my mind. Until I see images from this group – a long sandy beach in Cape Town between a pair of shiny chestnut ears. Rocky mountains in Arizona between the spotty ears of an Appaloosa on his first adventure after an injury. And a lush green Dartmoor valley with rays of sunlight beaming through the trees, as seen by an 8-year old girl through the grey ears of her best friend.

Intoxicating, isn’t it?

A brand that comes to mind that transports us to other places is Airbnb. The image below puts your customers in the picture and is a powerful example of visual storytelling that really sells the experience. Visual storytelling

What sells this place isn’t how many bedrooms it has, or the magnificent view, it’s that you can imagine yourself on the swing over-looking Los Angeles below. It also evokes nostalgic memories from your childhood. Airbnb is also a fantastic example of letting your customers do your marketing.

The human version of Horses Ears is Instagrama Murad Osmann’s “Follow Me” series, where he photographs the world from the perspective of being led by his wife’s hand. His images are spectacular.

Here you can see it being used in a Beringer Wines advertising campaign.

How can you apply visual storytelling to your business and put your customers in the picture?

Here’s 3 suggestions:

  1. Don’t just show your product on a plain background, frame it in such a way (visually) that your customer imagines themselves there, enjoying it. For example: if you sell cheese, show it on a platter at a dinner party or at a picnic in a beautiful outdoor setting. This helps to sell the experience your product is promising.
  2. Use interesting juxtapositions. Many years ago Steve ran a campaign for Design Mobel beds where they photographed the natural rimu framed beds in spectacular outdoor locations – top of Mt Tarawera, Tongariro National Park and above Huka Falls.
  3. User-generated visual content. Make use of the imagery that your customers post about your product/ service on social media. A few years ago Loews Hotels made use of their customer’s Instagram photos in a clever campaign called #TravelForReal.

Are you telling overdog or underdog stories?

I attended a function recently and was introduced to a guy I hadn’t met before. He asked me what I did, and then cut me short and proceeded to spend 20 minutes telling me all about his wonderful life. How well his business was doing, his six-figure income that was likely to increase by 50% this year, the new Maserati in his 100m2 carpeted garage, the Europe cruise booked for later in the year and so on and so on. He was intoxicated by his own success and loved hearing the sound of his own voice. So much so, that I struggled to get a word in, and when I did, he didn’t really hear or register anything that I was saying.

This is a classic ‘overdog’ story and you’ve probably heard plenty of these yourself over the years. Don’t you find them a big turn-off? Many brands are like this guy at the party and are guilty of telling overdog stories – infatuated by their own sense of importance and their supposedly unique contribution to the world. How many websites have we seen where brands are talking about being innovative, world class, world leaders, best in class etc?

Legendary storytelling coach Robert McKee says that brands have got to stop bragging and promising, and start telling stories. Brands need to stop trying to be the hero in their own story, and let their customer be the hero. They should focus more on being a mentor – kind of like an Obi Wan Kenobi character, helping the hero on his journey.

I believe that brands are far better served by telling underdog stories.

Why? Because we always root for the underdog, and relate more deeply to his struggles, so there’s a higher trust component and a much stronger emotional connection. And the underdog always has something to prove so we feel like we can count on his loyalty. The underdog won’t abandon us in times of trouble.

Richard Branson really gets this principle, and always chooses new business opportunities and markets where he can tell a classic underdog story. One of his famous quotes is, “We look for the big bad wolves who are dramatically overcharging and under-delivering.” Notice his use of the term “Big bad wolves”. This is classic story language and an analogy that we all recognise from childhood.

A fantastic underdog story example is Avis campaign launched in the eighties. At number 2 behind Hertz, their campaign bluntly stated “We try harder.” The humility and directness of this line immediately builds trust and creates the feeling that Avis will work harder to please you than their competitors will.

There’s much more power in being the underdog than the overdog. The key to a great business story is to get your audience to make an empathetic connection with you.

Underdog stories do just that. Overdog stories just turn people off.