Story, Development, and Design

Storytelling is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the people taking it in to position themselves in the story, see its relevance to their current situation, and then play forward a narrative about their own role in the story of now. It’s a way of uncovering the complexities of a person’s world and designing within that context.

 

How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles.

 

So how does it relate to development and design? Story art and craft is one of the best and oldest ways to engage an audience. We approach every project, regardless of its size or scope, from this perspective. Not just story-first, but structure first. Just like screenwriters do or authors do. There are, of course, countless books on story art and craft, typically for writers, filmmakers, game designers and artists, but they’re rarely, if ever, written for the people who build websites, software, tools, services, etc. that are not necessarily art or entertainment.

 

Designers, product managers, developers, content strategists, they can all benefit from taking on a storytelling approach in the process of creation. Take for example the use of experience maps. The maps try to represent an actual example of how a person (or persona) went through and did something they wanted to do. The maps are generally chronological, moving forward through the hours of the persona’s actions one stage at a time. The phrase “experience map” came about because we tend to want to create tools most relevant to the job we’re assigned, but in practice we need to be agnostic of whether the persona is using digital tools or not, or a combination to tools. The map represents the journey a person takes from the idea of accomplishing something to having accomplished that thing in the end. We want to see how it all hangs together from the persona’s perspective.

 

There can be as many experience/journey maps for a particular persona as there are deviations in the way they do that thing. For example, if a persona was taking a commercial flight, there might be different maps for a business-related flight than a leisure-oriented flight. There might be different maps based on whether it’s a last-minute or urgent flight. There might be different maps for long versus short flights, flights where the persona has to get work done before landing, flights where the persona is scared of flying, etc. The relevance is that the mental model represents a set of states of mind (mental spaces) that a person might pop into and out of during this journey toward accomplishing a goal. The states of mind might proceed in a nice linear fashion. Or they might represent a more cyclical approach, where the person revisits a previous state of mind again to re-evaluate something, to continue something, or to address something new that has come up. And therein lies the power of storytelling. We are designing with the notion that the goal and the steps to achieving it are front and center. Taking this approach not only allows for better design, it ensures that the things we construct are tied into the broader ecosystem in which people operate.

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Myths, Symbols, and Advertising

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. It creates and defines our experiences. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are only a portion of what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges. The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she not only vanquishes the problem (the monster), but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. And they work because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches, and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing far too often engage at the superficial level of the mind. They sell features and, occasionally, benefits. While that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it does nothing for establishing a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create devotion. It certainly does nothing to turn a brand and its story into something iconic, something we share. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.

 

Pride Week and Shaking Shit Up

Over the weekend, pride parades happened across the country, including those mid-sized cities in parts of the country that aren’t necessarily associated with progressive views. Included in that mix was Indianapolis. Oh, how things have changed. The first parade in Indianapolis started in 2005 and lasted a total of 15 minutes. It is now one of the largest pride festivals in this part of the country. Today, people pour in from all over the Midwest to celebrate Circle City Pride week. The parade itself is more than two hours long, with over 100 floats and groups involved. The event has grown so much that it had to be moved to Military Park, the premiere spot downtown for festivals. And while official numbers aren’t in yet, the events on Saturday are estimated to have brought in well over 100K attendances – not bad for state that is too often associated with corn, hyper-conservative ideology, and Mike Pence.

In a world where political and cultural divisions are seemingly at an all-time high, brands are increasingly held accountable for their stance on the political and social issues, whether speaking directly to the LGBTQ community or the broader population in general. Why? Because, quite simply, for the growing majority of people in the US, views on issues of equality are changing, particularly among the young. According to a Google Consumer Survey from August of 2014, over 45% of consumers under 35 years old say they’re more likely to do repeat business with an LGBTQ-friendly company. 54% also say they’d choose an equality-focused brand over a competitor. While the data is several years old, it’s probably safe to assume those numbers have done nothing but tick upward.

Equally important as to why brands need an active voice is to “shake shit up”, as one attendee told me. Statistically, we are becoming a more inclusive society. However, in the last year, purveyors of hate have grown emboldened. At the same time the pride march was going on, anti-Muslim protests were happening in 28 cities, including Indianapolis. While they couldn’t muster more than 75-100 followers, they were present and the threats were both clear and vocal. Taking a stand in support of the LGBTQ community does more than promote your good intentions, it demonstrates solidarity in the face of evil.

Despite backlash from groups that threaten to boycott them (or worse), more and more brands are responding with messages of inclusion, equality, and diversity. From Burger King to Hilton Hotels to Chase, we are seeing the faces of people that simply wouldn’t have been part of the equation in the past.

Perhaps more important than the messaging is that these companies now have a presence at events like those in Indy and across the country. Delta, Salesforce, Lilly and a host of other companies are sponsors and allies. Even Texas Roadhouse had a presence, handing out peanuts to munch.  All of this would have been unlikely a decade ago.  The cynic would point to it being a simple, calculated matter of cold, hard cash. After all, LGBTQ consumers have a buying power of about $884 billion, according to a study done by Witeck Communications. But we believe there is more to it than capitalizing on an event.  This shift on the part of brands is about the nature of change – we are seeing a type of evolution unfolding. Ideas, like species, adapt or die. For the former, the world becomes a brighter place, for the latter, change means eventual extinction. Brands can either adapt to this changing social landscape or become irrelevant. Perhaps more damning, they can come to be seen as repressive, threatening, or even dangerous.

As expectations for greater social responsibility from brands grow, it is tempting for marketers to take advantage of the situation, but there’s a fine line between what people see as support vs. pandering. A brand needs to ensure the values that underscore the its purpose are reflected in a way that isn’t opportunistic. It has to actively be part of a cultural conversation based on its purpose and this is precisely what the people in the region saw over the weekend. Increasingly, we are becoming a culture that thrives on inclusion. It may not feel like it at times, but the fact is that the nation as a whole is embracing acceptance and diversity in spite of a shrinking but highly vocal minority. When it comes to social issues at least, the blue dots in a sea of red are growing and the culture is becoming more welcoming. This is something we saw in the most meaningful of ways last weekend.

Pride celebrations in small, medium, and large cities across the US, and indeed the world, last week signals a permanent, meaningful cultural shift. We as a species still have a long way to go, but progress is being made.  And this is where brands affect change. Whether you’re selling soda in Columbus, hotel space in Montana, or mutual funds in Atlanta, a brand needs to create culture as well as reflect it.

 

 

 

 

AI, Advertising, and Culture

In an ever-increasingly connected world, artificial intelligence is beginning to find its way into every aspect of our lives. We are “on” 24/7and we rely more and more on our  devices, particularly our mobile devices, to help us make decisions. That rapid increase in computing power has done more than help the user. It has equipped companies with an unprecedented capacity to automate processes that previously required hours, days, and weeks of human effort. AI has allowed companies to target, adjust, and adapt at an unimaginable pace. In the same way that Siri acts as a personal assistant for its users, marketing companies are now tapping into AI to act as a personal assistant in the creation of highly effective marketing campaigns.

Currently, agencies (and their clients) use AI to sort Machine-Learning-AI-in-Finance-11-04-2016-A-1200x1200.jpg
through assets to determine and/or refine the target audience, to gather data about how to best position a brand in various contexts, and to create varied advertisements intended for a wide variety of mediums, including everything from billboards to social media. The final piece is still largely in its infancy, but will no doubt continue to grow and evolve as AI become faster and smarter. Today, the goal of AI in advertising is to optimize campaigns by placing ads in front of the right customer at the right time. As technologies evolve, advertisers will be able to limit their ads on the basis of a huge array of parameters, most of which we’re all familiar with. Targeting an individual will be based on hundreds of parameters and actions, all quantified and measure in the blink of an eye. And creative (and its placement) will adapt in near real-time. In other words, they’ll be able to micro-target at a faster pace than we can imagine.

All of that makes sense, but humans are more than individuals, we are part of broader cultural systems, which means context and cultural cues matter. Yes, each customer is unique and therefore each customer journey is unique. However, there are broader social, symbolic, and cultural forces that guide our behavior depending on the situation at hand. So, the question is, can AI account for those cultural patterns and processes?

Considering the rapid developments in machine and deep learning, these systems will become increasingly capable of teaching themselves to make more precise and effective decisions based on a broader set of inputs. Ultimately this means that for AI to be truly move beyond transactional relevance, it will need to have a more balanced approach, which is to have a robust understanding of people’s aspirations, interactions with each other, and social connections. What are they trying to get done, what are the barriers to that, how do they create a sense of belonging, etc.?

We create culture, interact with it, are affected by it, and can even be destroyed by it. Culture applies its own logic, has a memory, endures after its makers are gone, can be repurposed in supple ways, and can induce action. Because culture can do things we cannot do as individuals, like fostering collective action or making life easier by providing unspoken assumptions on which we can base our lives, AI will need to evolve to do more than react to clicks.

 

 

Talking Funny (Accents and Advertising)

As the world has changed, so has advertising. Promoting a product, service, idea, place-thing-to-be-sold-here isn’t just about promoting features and benefits, it is also about promoting a sense of meaning and identity. And much to my surprise, an aspect of this that too often overlooked is the importance of language.

In a country there are a host of regional dialects and accents. In the US there are dozens, though the sake of simplicity we can “group” them into broader families ranging from seven to twenty (it really depends on which linguistic model you choose to apply).  What this means is that various forms of the English language coexist and help define us in the context of where we are in relation to others. Marketers need to take into account that language is not just a way for us to speak (as in the transfer of information), it is also a revealing element of who we are.

Based on accent, word choice, etc. it is possible to determine our background and social status. Granted, depending on the context we may shift from one speech pattern to another, but the point is that language carries identifiers of class, region, gender identity, etc. (a dear friend originally from Alabama becomes decidedly more Southern after a drink or when in the company of other Southerners).  The dialect used in an advertisement therefore has an influence on the brand and the way it is perceived. Some dialects are seen as friendly and down to earth, some sound erudite, while others are viewed as authoritative. Because of these various attitudes towards the dialects of the English language, choosing the right one for a campaign is relevant to the way consumers perceive the message put forth..

Some years ago, a US-based survey found (we’ve all heard about it at some time or another) that brands using standard British English were viewed more favorably and rated higher in quality and sophistication. That could of course be disputed since context and history play a role in the interpretation, but the underlying point holds true; because the variety of English used in marketing has a powerful influence on how the audience judges the spokesperson, who also functions as a voice for the brand, the attitudes consumer forms are transferred to the overall brand. The important point being that language identity not only enhances the message put forth, but also validates it.

Ultimately, as the cultural characteristics, including speech, of the spokesperson influence the persuasive process, the ability to identify with the spokesperson based on the dialect has an influence on the purchase intention. The more connected in terms of dialect the speaker and listener are, the more favorable the evaluation of speaker, and the associated brand, will be. Language creates a deeper sense of cultural belonging. By underlining and verifying a company brand, as well as enhancing the possibility of identification, the presence of dialect has a great impact on overall perception when promoting a product or brand through television adverts – simply because of the social constructions and strong attitudes towards our speech.

What that means is that when crafting a brand platform, a campaign, or even a simple one-off piece of collateral, the importance of language goes beyond word choice. If the goal is to connect, then how we sound is as important as what we say.

 

You Are What You Brand

It sometimes seems lost on people, but consumers have begun to face an important problem: the increased uncertainty about various product attributes. This arises from various asymmetric information consumers have access to, regarding a specific product. Consumers tend to assess certain product attributes in a holistic manner rather than a case by case basis – bigger, faster, longer may still sell low-interest items, but it is increasingly losing its traction. Consequently, both extrinsic and intrinsic factors have to be accounted when trying to differentiate a product from its competitors. And therein lies the central distinction between products, campaigns, etc. and brands. Brands are bigger, richer, and drive us to act without always know precisely we we’re doing it. Brands can potentially play many different roles in the consumer decision process. That opens up a range of deeper questions about the role of a brand in the cosmic sense. How brands help us construct and reflect our identity is one way to think about it – and it’s a damn fine way, at that.

Often, consumers will choose a brand that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each consumer at an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, consumer choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of an individual social identity For example, a may choose to buy a pair of Doc Martens as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the buyer considers himself a post-punk soccer mom the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Each individual lifestyle reflects a person’s values, life vision, and aesthetic style. It also reflects a shared set of ideologies, collective style, and sense of belonging.

Marketers tend to use brands to differentiate a company’s products from competitors and to create a sense of superior value to customers – this is frequently done by talking about product attributes. The most important step in creating and delivering a superior value to customers is by adding meaningful brand associations that create value beyond the intrinsic characteristics of a product. One of the most important characteristics of a brand is the self-expressive function, meaning that value goes beyond the immediate benefits of your stuff and imparts a sense of psychological and social well being. Brands have the power to communicate valuable information and can be used and perceived in many different ways by consumers, people with similar beliefs, and those closest to us. In other words, brands reflect our identities and a lot of folks tend to use brands as a mean to express their identity and lifestyle. Indeed, this is becoming more prevalent as peoples seek to break down the paradox of belonging to something bigger than themselves while aspiring to the American ideal of hyper-individuality.

In addition to serving as an external signal, brands can be used to create and confirm a consumer self-concept and unique identity. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both his own and people’s perception about his desired identity. As a result, people use brands to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In particular, consumers tend to prefer brands that are convergent with their perceived ideal identity. As a result of that self-expression, a predilection for a certain brand is the result of only sociological factors because a person’s need for self-expression is the result of interactions with other members of the community. In other words, brands are used as a mean of expressing their own identity, brand predilection is the result of intrinsic factors, and brand preference is the result of extrinsic factors. What that means is that a successful brand must have a strong degree of resonance with both consumer personal identity and socio-cultural identity.

As a consequence, consumers’ needs for self-expression can be satiated not only be using certain brands but also by other available means of self-expression. This is particularly important when analyzing the correlations between brands and lifestyle because the lines between personal identity and everyday doings are becoming more blurred. Products are just things, but brands become beacons.

Why does it matter? It maters because brands can be used to create a unique social identity for each customer. Brands are more than just instruments of hedonic experiences because they have the power to harness and channel specific hedonistic desires in expressing a bigger sociological and psychological construct such as lifestyle. And this is where data and linear thinking fall flat (you just knew it was coming). Data get at the what and the why, but they don’t get at the richer aspects of the human experience, the why behind the what. Quantitative information isn’t relevant if it only gives you have the picture – the Mona Lisa can be broken down into its constituent parts but that doesn’t explain why people will spend hours in line for a glimpse at it. A John Deere cap does a great job of keeping the sun out of your eyes and that can be quantified. But those same data points can’t explain why the brand resonates with Midwest alternative kids to such a degree.

The answers lie in rethinking how we address brands and branding. By expanding the brand conversation to one of identity, longing, identity it allows us to penetrate the white noise and reach our consumers, turning them into advocates.