From Brand Values To Core Story

Last week we looked at the four elements that constitute a Brand Story in your brand deserves a powerful plot. Today we look at how you obtain the ingredients to formulate this story

Seeing storytelling as a strategic tool triggers a natural evolution in the traditional thinking behind brands. When the classical branding concept is fused with the logic of storytelling, we move from perceiving a brand as a set of brand values to working with the brand as a living a core story. Coke is the epitome of this transition. This icon is the archetypal Innocent espousing ‘joy’ as a core tenet. This has inspired their storytelling over the last six decades.

The explanation is simple. Values in themselves are just words, devoid of any real content. When you tell a story on the other hand, those terms come to life through powerful images and place your values in a more dynamic context. Bingo! Suddenly everyone knows and understands what you are trying to say, because you’re giving them something that they can actually apply in daily life. Effectively, a core story equals brand values transformed into a single, unifying and meaningful messages.

Armed with the four basic elements of storytelling your brand deserves a powerful plot, it is time to start experimenting with your brand core story. It must express your brand’s distinctive character. Why are you here? What are you fighting for? What would the world be without you? In short, it is about finding out your brand’s reason for being.

The first step is to understand whether your brand would be missed. It may sound morbid, but the Obituary Test is crucial in identifying and formulating the brand’s reason for being. This is precisely what the core story must express if it is to concisely communicate the brand.

Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of being dumped by a lover. A classic case of not realizing what you have got until it’s gone. All too often, it is only when we have lost what we really cared about, that we realize what it was that made it so special. The Obituary Test is centred on this argument, forcing the brand to take a long, hard look in the mirror and honestly consider what, if anything, would be missed should the brand die.

It is not the most pleasant of tasks, granted, but the Obituary Test is the most effective means of starting the process.

We started this post waxing lyrical about Coca Cola. But even this behemoth has had to face an Obituary Test.

CMO Perspective – Coca Cola

Entirely by accident, the world’s leading brand Coca-Cola came very close to taking a real life Obituary Test when it decided to change its original formula.

The early 1980s found Coke dangerously close to losing the cola war to Pepsi. In fact, Coke’s market share in the US had been shrinking for decades, from 60% just after World War 2 to under 24% in 1983. Worse, carefully monitored blind test showed that in more than half the cases, people preferred the taste of Pepsi. Coca-Cola’s solution was to introduce a new secret formula coke that tasted smoother and sweeter than the original. More like Pepsi, in fact. The Coca-Cola Company spent 4 million US dollars on market research and tested it on 200,000 tasters. It was a winner. People liked the new Coke far better than either the original Coca-Cola or Pepsi.

On 23 April 1985, Coca-Cola introduced the new formula marking the first formula change in 99 years, at the same time ceasing production of the original formula. The “old Coke” was gone forever….

The reaction from consumers however, wasn’t quite what Coke executives had expected. There was outrage. Consumers quite literally panicked, filling their basements with cases of original Coke. People seemed to hold any Coca-Cola employee personally responsible for the change. Of course, the executives had to take their share of the beating. Coke CEO Roberto Goizueta received a letter addressed to ‘Chief Dodo, The Coca-Cola Company.” Another angry customer wrote to him asking for his autograph because, in years to come, the signature of “one of the dumbest executives in American business history” would be worth a fortune.

Pepsi, naturally jumped on the bandwagon and gave all their employees the day off to celebrate, on the premise that by changing their formula Coke had publicly admitted that it wasn’t “the real thing.”

The Coca-Cola Company got the hint. On July11 1985 the “old” Coca-Cola formula was returned to store shelves as “Coca-Cola Classic.” The story made the front page of virtually every major newspaper. The television network ABC even interrupted General Hospital to break the news. In just two days after the announcement, the Coca-Cola Company received 31,000 telephone calls on the hotline. Anger melted in forgiveness and then turned to celebration.

Looking back on this incident, one can’t help wondering what on earth Coca-Cola were thinking about. To put it simply, they made the mistake of focusing only on the physical feature of the product – the taste – while completely ignoring the emotional attachment forged between the brand and the people. They had forgotten the fact that Coca-Cola had been integral part of American life for more than a century. This was part of the American identity. Coke was much more than a cola flavoured drink, it was an American institution – a national icon.

It took the loss of the beverage people had grown up with and fallen in love over, to remind them how much it meant to them. Gaye Mullins from Seattle, Washington and front man of the activist group Old Cola Drinkers said simply, “They can do it. It’s Un-American. We’ve fought wars to have choice and freedom. I couldn’t have been more upset if they had burned the flag in my front yard.”

At a press conference announcing the return of the original formula Donald Keogh (then the company’s President and COO) admitted: “The passion for the original Coca-Cola – and that is the word for it, passion – was something that caught us by surprise. It is a wonderful American mystery, a lovely American enigma, and you simply cannot measure it any more than you can measure love, pride or patriotism.” Coca-Cola Classic kept gaining popularity and by early 1986 reclaimed the cola crown from Pepsi.

There are not many brands that would be missed the way people missed the original Coke. But think about it. Would anyone even bother if your brand was gone tomorrow? Or would customers just move next door to your competitor without giving it a second thought? If not an outrage, how would people react if your brand was gone? What would they miss? The question is key in in getting to the core of what your brand is all about. Coke learned the hard way. And that is what the Obituary Test is a vital kick-off for developing the core story of your brand.

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