Executive Education

Storytelling and Narrative branding versus Merchandizing Marketing

What would be the Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon and Oprah without storytelling? How could have Dave Letterman, Anderson Cooper and Hala Gorani become household names without telling stories that have kept audiences awake for so many years? What would Obama’s inaugural speech have been without its fairy tale premise? What would America be without the American Dream canvas?

Whether you wish to lease the most coveted seat in the Oval office for a five-year term, or you dream of swaying your TEDx audience, your best bet to do is to tell a compelling story. Stories like the fairy tales that made us all believe in the American Dream, social mobility and sing like a choir under the magic spell of “Yes We Can.”

Whether you teach wish to describe in plain language the history of the universe like Stephen Hawking, you are more likely to break the ice with a compelling story or a set of metaphors to explain the most obscure algorithms; otherwise, most of your audience will fall asleep or switch to another channel.

In fact, all we do during our traveling lives and careers is retelling stories, instead of selling stories as direct marketers and Mad Men made us believe for so many years, until reality shows and YouTube became better channels of communication than most primetime commercials.

That is how we have been raised : brainwashed, admonished or caught lying like Ben Carson. The truth is that storytelling is everywhere, from the minute we learn how to tell stories up till we usher the last whisper. Whether you become a corporate raider, a hall of fame tenant, a great HR manager or a legendary brand like Coke Classic, you will be remembered through subjective, discursive narratives. Your colleagues, customers, employers, former high school sweethearts will all have something to share about your accomplishments and clumsy faux pas on a Facebook page or via other cross-border channels, driven either by content or total serendipity.

Stories are not linear, unidirectional or scripted. They’re neither authorized nor unauthorized by a designated biographer. How preposterous to think that branding is making a resume look like a beauty pageant portfolio! Unless you wish to befriend Donald Trump, branding is far from bragging or wearing a shiny set of handpicked ethical attributes.

The sudden impetus for storytelling as a powerful branding weapon of deep influence is a nice breeze away from all the post-functionalist and mechanical models developed and marketed through academic papers and curriculums. Not only is storytelling the most fundamental ingredient when it comes to deep layered branding, but it is also the most misunderstood component in the post-industrial marketing era. Why is there so much confusion over the relationship between branding and storytelling?

The most significant misinterpretation, miscomprehension and misuse of storytelling lay actually in the hands of marketers who blur the lines and the lanes between personal development training, coaching, PNL and marketing. They have imported the storytelling terminology without the manuals, the seeds without the ecosystem, and the toolboxes without the DNA codes. The result is a clumsy makeshift, if not a patchwork of remarketed clichés that look good from afar, but are far from good as they are serial aficionados of every catchy marketing buzzword making headlines.

In fact, storytelling belongs to the world of narrative theories developed and improved by so many great semiotic scholars such as Vladimir Propp and other such critics specialized in cultural studies and sociolinguistics.

Unlike quantum physics, chemistry, physics and biology, artificial sciences like management and marketing are very prolific, but also very promiscuous when it comes to luring innovative terms and concepts. The end result of the applications to corporate and personal branding are totally out of focus, except for the effort to link storytelling to branding through narrative models.

Branding as marketed over the years by personal body image building consultants is one notch higher than packaging and only one step down from merchandising. Current thought and frameworks on branding are product-centered. As such, personal branding is a mere adaptation of commodity branding and merchandizing: hence, the awkward French notion of la marque personne to refer the person as a brand in so many French-speaking nations. By turning marketing mix applications into people branding, we broke the fourth wall of the proscenium between natural-born personas and commodities to be traded among recruiting agencies and people striving for fifteen minutes of fame.

No matter how you look at personal branding metaphors to illustrate the importance of branding over résumé-writing, you will soon find yourself exactly where early frameworks left. The initiation to the self-branding ritual will start with a personalized introduction to name-brand identity design, image making, character development and how to stand out above the crowd and differentiate from the other competing executives. All you will need after attending and graduating at the same time from the workshop is a shiny logo and a showroom to compete with the new BMW series.

The choice you will make as a business tycoon, rising CEO or senior manager is not whether to be involved in self-branding workshops, but rather if you wish to learn the knots and bolts of storytelling like the most charismatic leaders, or pay a pricey fee for a faded parchment from an old era. If you think that your CRQ (Corporate Reputation Quotient) can impact your CPR (Corporate Performance Ratio), ROI or brand equity, it’s better that you apply for an aesthetician job, as corporate Botox won’t last forever.

Managing brand equity and reputational quotient is a meticulous job that cannot be treated as mere messaging or makeup through classical communication scripts or frameworks. The best novelist will not be able to craft a great success story, unless you know exactly where to draw the lines between core value propositions, customer stories and expectations, corporate culture and the overall vision; nor will the best marketers be able to convey the right story without these factors. Copywriters and PR agents are underequipped when it comes to deciphering the deep structures of narrative systems. The youngest undergraduate student in literary theory might actually be a lot more helpful than the majority of certified body image branding coaches.

From an academic perspective, branding is a multi-disciplinary field hardly taught in management, marketing and advertising schools (except in European schools where marketing semiotics has prospered due to the influence of famous scholars). To measure the impact of narratives on emotional intelligence, consumer perceptions, and reactions to certain types of plots, characters, settings and cross-channel discourses, it’s important to break away from the never-ending mechanical approaches to branding. In fact, some of the best work on contemporary narratives I have seen so far come from digital storytelling labs in the technology, entertainment and gaming industries, which take storytelling very seriously. Ask Grand Theft Auto V executives for the ROI on interactive dialogues and innovative storytelling- the numbers speak for themselves.

Last but not least, storytelling is a chameleon genre, much like Woody Allen’s Zelig. Over the years, we went from biblical stories told by prophets to new forms of expression geared towards instant gratification through evanescing messages. Ever since Citizen Kane came out, broadcasters have made a great living out of headlines. The stories that used to be written to honor posthumous heroes became a daily show. In order to meet our insatiable thirst for good stories and digitized faces, the stories became live, shorter and shorter still. Polarizing and documenting every state of mind, peer-to-peer smiles, led to the emergence of new genres hardly ever known to us two decades ago. Thanks to Snapchat, Vine and many other such applications, a selfie might or might not live forever unless it goes viral. Then it becomes an Open Source Story. So this is the end of the story- or it might just be the beginning.

Pr. Jamal Boukouray, Ph.D

Sr Professor, Management Consultant & Keynote Speaker
Core Specialties include Management of Innovation, Complexity, Organizational Management & Leadership in the digital age, rebranding & extreme corporate makeovers
ESCA Ecole de Management, Casablanca (Morocco)


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Dr. Jamal Boukouray, Ph.D
Dr. Jamal Boukouray, Ph.D, is an international retail management consultant, author, keynote speaker and VP Marketing at Multidev Technologies. Core Specialties include Market Share Development, Digital Transformation, Branding & Marketing, Open Innovation, Design Thinking, Change Management & Leadership Analytics. Dr. Jamal Boukouray is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.