In the October/November 2017 issue of Creative Review, writer Nick Asbury delves into the origins of brand storytelling and wonders whether it has had its day. Below is a Private View column Jim wrote for DesignWeek in March 2008, which is very much on the same wavelength. Clearly, Brand storytelling was already starting to get annoying nine years ago.
Let me tell you a story… on second thoughts, maybe not.
Have you noticed how suddenly a brand without a ‘story’ is like a cat without a tail? Or should that be tale? I even came across a gourmet cookie brand recently called Elsa’s Story – “why hold back, let’s put it right up there in the name”. Yes, there’s no escape from ubiquitous brand story coming at you like some interminable camp-fire raconteur intent on telling you how it all began, long, long ago.
“First it was just me and Malcolm in our rickety old potting shed. How we loved that place, it was our bolt-hole, our sanctuary. It was there we discovered our shared, deep-down passion for watering cans. When we started our business, we swore to do things differently, on our own terms. So we thought long and hard and finally came up with our patented two-spout ceramic can. It halves the effort of watering, cuts down on water and energy consumption, and is totally organic and recyclable. Now, whenever we bring out another garden-friendly innovation, we think of those good old days and ask ourselves ‘would it pass the potting-shed test?’ ”
Every square inch of packaging is now a canvas, a handy space to add a new layer or nuance to the story. The side of the Camper shoe box that proclaims “Camper is not a shoe. Camper is the result of a dream. The dream of a family from Mallorca that has been making shoes since 1877…” Or the label I cut out of my Howies jeans that says “We are all downstream. At Howies, we know every step we take has some impact,” and proceeds to tell the story of how the jeans were washed with an ‘eco-ball’, to go easy on the world’s pumice supply.
What’s it all about? It’s an attempt to connect with the people who buy their goods on a deeper, emotional level. To suggest that a shoe, or a T-shirt, or a pasty has genuine provenance – that there are real people behind it, people who have invested time, ideas and money into something they truly believe in. It’s about individuality and authenticity, about openness and pride. No wonder they want to tell you all about it. And that’s fine – even diverting or informative – when it’s a Camper or a Howies, because they write with flair and conviction.
But occasionally you feel like you’re trapped in a taxi with a driver who’s intent on telling you his life story when you’d rather be alone with your thoughts. Or stuck with your hands in the washing-up bowl when Celine Dion comes on the radio. Do your really need to know that your loo roll once stood proud in a sustainable Scandinavian forest, or that your stapler fought bravely in the War of American Independence?
The thing about stories too is that by their very nature you can’t entirely trust them. The best stories are jewels of the imagination. Often they’re fabricated, or at least slightly exaggerated. I remember feeling slightly cheated when I learned that Phileas Fogg crisps were a marketing concoction of the 1980s, the name and the packaging suggesting the 1870s. And it was almost as if they’d bought their story off the shelf from Jules Verne.
Of course we all have a story. It’s just that some are more interesting and more skilfully told than others. And just occasionally, there’s something to be said for a bit of mystery.
This piece was first published in DesignWeek, March 2008.