The (Not So Hidden) Persuaders

As I creatively market a brand through storytelling, I believe that truth wins and beauty uplifts the human spirit.

Appears in Spring 2013 Issue: Persuasion
March 1 st 2013

Once upon a time branding was simple— a straightforward battle between brands based on claims of product superiority. Colgate whitened teeth, Wisk fixed “ring around the collar,” and Starkist Tuna had “great taste”. These were among a lexicon of pithy slogans embedded in our consciousness by corporations committed to repetitive messaging as the key to changing hearts, influencing minds, and directing behaviour.

For decades the advertising industry became the primary tool for persuading the booming American middle class to part with hard-earned cash and enrich their lives with an array of shining, sparkling objects. The public face of this phenomenon was Madison Avenue’s mythical “Mad Men”—the suave, urbane ad execs, commuting from affluent suburbs in New Jersey and Connecticut to pitch accounts, coin slogans, deconstruct consumer psyches, and shape the framework of modern branding.

Then came the 1960s, and the wider changes that engulfed society also brought fresh winds through the landscape of persuasion. Two trends in particular changed the way brands communicated to consumers.

Firstly, there emerged a nascent recognition that America was no longer one white, homogenous suburb where everyone looked alike, talked alike, and shared the same aspirations. Madison Avenue saw an influx of so-called “ethnics”—men (and to some degree women) from Jewish, Italian, Greek, and Irish-American backgrounds who spoke and wrote with their own cadence and infused brands with a greater sense of warmth, wit, and even humility. From this creative awakening sprung the great Volkswagen Beetle headline, “It’s ugly but it gets you there” and “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” for the popular brand of rye bread.

Secondly, as corporations struggled to give their products sustainable competitive advantage from a purely technical point of view, they relied more heavily on brand management teams to add “emotional value” to their brands. Brands were no longer simply defined by a set of rational attributes; they now developed “personalities” in order to differentiate themselves in cluttered marketplaces.

Demographic (and psychographic) research allowed advertisers to increasingly target attitudinal differences among consumers—and campaigns were no longer devised simply based on the buying power of a target audience, but more importantly how they felt about life, the world around them, and their own place within it.

Take the fierce soft drink battles that raged from the 1970s onwards. Coke literally took the high ground as the gateway to American happiness with its famous hilltop commercial in which kids from around the globe joined in joyous unison to proclaim: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep its company.”

Pepsi, on the other hand, came to define itself as the more modern, edgy, glamorous alternative. If Coke was the cute girl next door, Pepsi was the raunchy supermodel leaping to life from magazine pages and MTV videos to fulfill teenage fantasies. 7-UP was the “un-cola” with a taste of tropical exoticism; while Dr. Pepper was the outsider unafraid to assert his individuality by rejecting the status quo: “I drink Dr. Pepper and I’m proud, I’m part of an original crowd.”

Today the veil has been lifted on most brands—consumers are smarter, savvier, more demanding, and better informed than ever. As a society we have faster and easier access to reams of information about a product or brand at the click of a mouse.

Perhaps more importantly, we have greater access to a particular brand’s “world.” Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Pinterest, and a plethora of social outlets have given us behind-the-scenes access like never before. The degree of brand connectivity in our everyday lives has multiplied exponentially— especially for younger audiences—as brands of all stripes have jumped on these tools to engage with consumers where they spend the majority of their time via smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

Our ongoing digital revolution and the democratization of information means that brands no longer have the luxury of simply making pronouncements or dictating taste down to consumers in the one-way monologues prevalent during the “Mad Men” generation. To survive and prosper, the successful brands of the future must engage in “conversations” with newly empowered consumers who decorate their entire homes, outfit their wardrobes, stock their fridges, and even buy cars from the comfort of their living rooms.

The existential transformation for brands that have spent billions defining and safeguarding their statuses is that they no longer have sole control over their “brand equity.” They are no longer entirely masters of their own destiny.

Their reputations are to a large degree defined by third parties—everyday consumers posting reviews, blogging, dialoguing in forums, assessing product strengths and weaknesses, and advising their fellow buyers around the world as to whether or not they should make a particular purchase.

People themselves are the “new media,” wordof- mouth is the “new advertising,” and personal endorsement trumps any marketing claim.

Astoundingly it has now become commonplace for retailers to post consumer ratings of their own products on their websites—both positive and derogatory. It would have been unheard for a marketer to embrace and broadcast that level of scrutiny in previous generations. Such transparency belies a growing recognition that the role of brand managers is increasingly to “persuade the persuaders” and not solely the end-consumer. The “new persuaders,” who now yield growing power in the three-way dialogue between brand, influencer, and consumer, are themselves everyday members of the public whose critiques on sites like Tripadvisor, Amazon, and Refinery 29 play a crucial role in the process of brand persuasion.

Moreover, as consumers, we’re no longer solely interested in a brand’s USP (its unique selling proposition and the currency of traditional marketing) or even its ESP (the emotional selling proposition that creates brand personalities); we now want to know everything. We demand to know a brand’s ideology, its worldview, and what it stands for. We have eaten from the branding equivalent of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and, as a society, we can no longer return to the pre-lapserian innocence of bygone decades.

As many commentators have noted, we are less interested in “how” and “what” brands offer but “why.” We’re not just interested in the taste of Starbucks coffee but where it’s sourced, its labour relations, political lobbying record, the CEO’s view on education and tax reform, and why Starbucks even exists in the first place. Likewise, we now accept that Apple’s primary purpose is not simply consumer electronics, but to instigate a revolution of personal creativity— their mission doesn’t start or end with a product, their vision is to encourage us all to “think different” as their celebrated ad campaign admonished.

As a broad generalization, one can identify an arc within marketing where brands started off as “products,” became “people,” and are now expressed as “stories”—stories that often contain a call-to-action reflecting a deeper “brand ideology.”

Increasingly, the questions consumers are asking have changed from the obvious “does this product work” to a whole new set of concerns: “is your story credible?”; “is it relevant to my life and worldview?”; “are my peers buying into it?”

Here’s an example from my own experience: I work for Cole Haan—an iconic American shoe and accessories brand that recently decided to change its story from one of classic and comfortable work-wear to fashion-forward innovation aimed at a younger, hipper, New Yorkcentric audience. To re-purpose a well-worn cliché, not only did the medium become the message, the medium radically changed the message. We abandoned the confines of traditional fashion magazines and literally took the brand to the streets and subways of New York City, plastering walls, storefronts, subway stations, and train cars with a new brand ideology communicated through provocative soundbytes such as “You didn’t move to New York York in the first place. Most New Yorkers are implants from around the country and other parts of the world. They’re drawn to the dynamism, pace, and endless sense of opportunity the city offers. They work hard to advance their careers and pursue dreams, but they equally love to indulge the night-time energy of the city. New York is the ultimate “work hard, play harder” crucible where personal style is a powerful currency for telegraphing one’s sense of belonging to an urban tribe of hip, culturally adroit taste-makers and style leaders.”

The success of our strategy relies on aligning the brand with this distinctly New York frame of mind and telling our story with a terse, sardonic tone of voice that accurately reflects the everyday vernacular and sharp-edged wit of the city’s streets. The brief to the copywriters was “make the brand speak the way you hear New Yorkers speaking on the streets” (not the contrived, artificial voice of mainstream advertising).

To put it another way, our “persuasion strategy” is far greater than convincing consumers that we make great shoes and handbags; we’re attempting to demonstrate that we understand the mindset of young, ambitious, fashion-forward New Yorkers and that we speak their language and deliver products that seamlessly fit their worldview.

However, if we said this directly (without the wit, charm, and seductive imagery), we would be rejected out of hand as just another manipulative, ham-fisted corporation clumsily attempting to ingratiate itself with a key demographic. As one of my first bosses taught me early in my career, “the most successful marketers don’t sell, they make people want to buy” and they do so by creating a world and set of values to which others can aspire and relate. Our role is to seduce and allow our audience to enjoy the seduction without insulting their intelligence.

Our “Don’t Go Home” campaign created a world where sleep is minimal and lust for life is infectious. As such, it touched on a “truth” dear to New Yorkers’ hearts—namely, the belief that they’re different, special, and live in the most exciting city in the world. New Yorkers may not always state this explicitly, but they generally believe it to be true. Interestingly enough, we now tell this same brand story around the world as we’ve identified that like-minded consumers in Chicago, Toronto, Tokyo, and beyond also identify with the excitement and “hustle” of the New York lifestyle and are drawn to our representation of this energy.

Our new story is simple—Cole Haan’s unique combination of style and innovation make us the ideal shoes for the 24-hour work-to-play lifestyle of busy, stylish New Yorkers who don’t have time to go home and change before going out at night.

My job is to ensure our story resonates beauty and truth—and I believe the creative “beauty” and wit of our story draws people to the brand, while the “truth” of our products reinforces our claims. Otherwise the nakedness of the emperor’s new clothes will be revealed and judged in the high court of social media and our efforts will have failed.

How should we think about these shifts in brand persuasion from a Christian perspective? More precisely, how do we engage in a culture where the storytelling tools have become increasingly subtle, complex, and sophisticated, marshalled for selling products?

Overall, I believe the prognosis is positive. As humans we all have stories to tell—our lives are stories in themselves and ultimately we form part of a greater story that both pre-dates and post-dates us. Similarly for brands—the most effective persuaders are those who understand the core dynamics of successful storytelling, which increasingly tends to seduce rather than convince through deductive logic.

Stories simultaneously exist on multiple planes— rational, emotional, and spiritual. Some are intuitive and shaped by generations of tradition and social liturgy; others are new, disruptive, and embryonic. Either way, human beings are most often persuaded by the subliminal beauty of a persuasive story and the hope, promise, and affirmation it delivers.

As someone charged with creatively managing a brand, I see myself first and foremost as a storyteller—using the tools of creative media to connect consumers with brands through the timeless art of persuasion.

As a man of faith, I aspire to tell stories imbued with beauty and truth; informed by the belief that truth wins and beauty uplifts the human spirit.

The challenges I’ve faced over the years usually arise when commercial and corporate pressures seek to undermine, distort or even exaggerate the truth of a particular brand or product— and there have been times when I’ve had to put my neck on the line by speaking “truth” to power in order to avoid a compromise of my own personal integrity. Fortunately these moments have been few and far between—and the increased scrutiny under which brands find themselves in the glaring light of social media means there is even less scope for obfuscation.

Similarly, earlier in my career I wrestled more viscerally with the ethics of persuasion as it relates to promoting excessive consumerism. However I quickly recognized that if I believed and benefited from the free exchange of goods and services that is central to our liberal capitalist economy, then I should equally accept that the free exchange of information is an essential component of this process—and one to which I could rewardingly apply my skills and talents. In fact, as consumer empowerment has grown through social media, it’s harder to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes and my earlier concerns that persuasion could border on deception have in turn receded.

What I’ve learned is that, although the channels and tools of conversation are constantly evolving, the most persuasive brand-stories generally conform to the same immutable principles—a core product truth, expressed with emotional resonance and cultural insight that connects with the heart of what it means to be human at any one given moment in time.

For an illuminating example of this perfect storm of persuasion, look no further than Nike. To my mind, the reason for the success of “Just Do It” in the 1980s and 1990s was not simply the prowess of Nike’s products (many brands could make similar claims) but rather the skill with which Nike tapped into our growing cultural obsession with sporting heroes as objectified gods on whom we project our own desire for herculean greatness. They cleverly seized upon this insight, coupled with a growing trend toward athletic self-perfection, and flipped it on its head by saying; “you too can achieve the impossible—there are no limits.” They gave us a reason to believe above and beyond the mere technical specs of a sneaker—we could join a movement greater than ourselves and touch the transcendent. We knew we would never be Michael Jordan, but we could somehow share the dream of his gravity-defying potency and everything he represented as an icon that made the impossible feel possible.

Nike presented perhaps the most commanding example of brand persuasion at its most efficacious— product truth coupled with emotional relevance and the insightful cultural discernment. I’d argue their success was even greater than Apple’s in the respect that Apple always had a sharper point of product differentiation vis-a-vis its competitors through its own proprietary operating system, while sneakers by and large remain a commodity that requires greater persuasive power to maintain long-term brand loyalty.

More probing questions arise, however, when the brand dream is tarnished and our trust undermined by the discrepancy between promise and reality—and both Nike and Apple’s production methods and labour relations have recently come under intense consumer censure and media scrutiny, fuelled by our heightened desire for greater corporate transparency and accountability.

As a result, our hopes and aspirations are even more acutely deflated, simply because we have been so effectively persuaded by the power of their dream and expect only the highest standards of ethical behaviour.

To some extent, such failings (though objectionable) would be more easily forgiven in a brand of lesser reputation, but to whom much respect is given, even more is expected. In branding (as in mythology) once Icarus has flown too closely to the sun’s brilliance, the fall is even steeper—and this dynamic was personified by Tiger Woods, whose painful and highly public reputational demise not only punctured our idealization of the Nike-and- Tiger dream, but triggered a substantial decline in revenue from which golf still struggles to recover.

Tellingly, both brands offer the same promise of hope and affirmation identified as one of the keys of effective brand persuasion—and this promise will be a double-edged sword that both acquits and condemns depending on how closely the reality matches the projected dream.

Nonetheless, our affinity to certain brands still provides a compelling insight into our dreams as a culture—we long for youth, joy, beauty, self-empowerment, and freedom. We respond best to stories told with wit, warmth, charm, humanity, and intelligence. Since the time of Aristotle, the fundamentals of effective, persuasive communication have largely remained unchanged—“to inform and entertain”—regardless of the media.

As labourers in the field seeking to bring some form of redemptive edge to the cultural goods we produce, it’s reassuring to know that many of the world’s most persuasive brand stories do not overtly conflict with our worldview as followers of Christ and some in fact are largely consistent, as the market progressively recognizes the currency of truth, beauty and humanity as powerful consumer magnets. Take for instance, the star commercials of this year’s Superbowl—Audi “Courage,” VW “Get Happy,” Jeep “Whole Again,” and Budweiser “Clydesdales” among them.

People of faith tasked with brand storytelling have a unique opportunity to channel our creative gifts toward telling stories that enlighten, entertain, and uplift—rather than those that degrade, debase, and undermine. It would be naïve to deny the temptation to deviate from this worthy aspiration, given the surrounding commercial and cultural pressures we face daily in the battle for brand persuasion.

However, we can remain encouraged and guided by the timeless belief that “truth well told” will ultimately prevail both in the marketplace and the discourse to engage hearts and minds on matters of the soul.

 

Chidi Achara lives and works in New York City where he is Vice President, Creative Services at Cole Haan, directing all advertising, branding, and digital communications for the iconic American fashion brand.

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