How to create impossibly imaginative brand stories

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You probably already tell very realistic tales about your brand. Telling much more imaginative brand stories about it – science fiction, fantasy, even horror ones – can unlock very important truths about it too.

That’s because those kinds of stories reveal different kinds of truths in different ways. Let’s start by understanding what those truths are.

What does each kind of story do?

Science fiction stories think about the present from the point of view of the future. We use them to think about what might happen next and how we could respond to it. They help us practice being surprised by tomorrow.

  • SF stories are about things that could happen.

Fantasy stories are about the impossible. They describe worlds and people that play by their own rules. They help us understand which parts of ourselves will never change, even if everything else does.

  • Fantasy stories are about things that never happen.

Horror tells stories we want to turn our eyes away from. They help us explore all the different ways our lives can go horribly, irrevocably wrong, then show us how we might live through all that awful pain and loss.

  • Horror stories are things that shouldn’t happen.

And finally, there are the realistic stories you’re already telling. They help us look directly at the world of today, understanding either how it works or how it came into being. They explain the world as it already is.

  • Realistic stories are about things that do happen.

New worlds for your customers

Telling customer stories in different genres helps you think through all the different things they might need from you and you can do for them.

A few years back, I did some work with a big DIY supplier. When we discussed how people already used their products, we told realistic stories. That helped us understand problems customers actually had and improve their day-to-day product experience.

They liked making up fantasy stories about their customers too. That’s how they ended up staging gigs in people’s gardens as part of a big promotional campaign (‘What’s something that will never, ever happen?’ ‘Your favourite comedian playing your garden shed!’).

Telling SF stories helped them understand how the DIY world could change, and what they could do about it. And when they thought about how it could all go wrong, so they could make absolutely sure that everything went right, they told horror stories.

New ways of imagining your business

Telling different kinds of stories about your own company helps you understand who you really are and plan for whatever’s coming next. Imagine that Brexit’s going to have a big impact on your business, for example.

It might have come onto your radar years as ago as a fantasy story: ‘It’ll never happen, but let’s think through what it could mean anyway.’ Exploring the impact of impossible changes will throw up surprising insights into your business and your customer relationships.

Then Brexit would have turned into an SF story. ‘Well, it could happen, so let’s look at how it might pan out and see what that’d mean for us.’ With greater realism comes more precise speculation and planning, making sure you’re never surprised by whatever’s next.

Right now, the chaos and uncertainty it’s created is something that shouldn’t happen. Telling Brexit as a horror story will help you understand what you need to preserve and what you might be forced to let go of as it goes forward.

And one day, it’ll be a story about something that actually did happen. You’ll know exactly how it all turned out, and you’ll be able to tell the tale of what you, your business and your customers learned from it.

What’s next?

So those are some ideas about new kinds of stories you can imagine. But they’re only starting points – the world of storytelling is limitless. So now, it’s over to you.

Think about all the fantastical, surprising, terrifying stories that have blown your mind over the years, then work out how you can tell stories like that about your business. You’re sure to find out some wonderful – and very useful, and hopefully not too scary – things…

Creativity learnings with Primal Scream

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Creativity in action - pic by Sharon McCutcheon

Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’ album came along at just the right time for me. It exploded across the 90s horizon in a kaleidoscopic blast of dub, techno, rock and roll, and general saucer-eyed creativity just as I stepped out of my rather bland schooldays and into far more colourful worlds.

Then, a couple of years later, its follow up, ‘Give Out, But Don’t Give Up’ appeared. It was generally felt to be a bit of a limp, directionless let down. I did my best to love it, but even I had to admit that it was nowhere near as trailblazingly brilliant as its predecessor.

And now the Primals have released the original GOBDGU sessions. They’re what the album should have been, before the record company suits (man) stuck their collective oar in. They’re utterly and unreservedly fantastic, and they’ve got some very important things to teach us about creativity.

It’s not what you expect

The whole point of creativity is that something new happens – and that new thing is not always going to be what you expect. So, if you ask someone to go off and be creative, and they come back with something that’s just plain baffling, sit down and think about what it’s really achieving.

That’s what Creation Records boss Alan McGee didn’t do. He asked the Primals to come up with a follow-up to a ravetastic dance music classic, expecting more of the same. But they shot off at a tangent (and to Memphis) to record a soulful rock album that’s more like early 70s Rolling Stones than anything else.

It’s a great achievement, coming together as a timelessly cohesive, powerfully emotional and slinkily groovy suite of songs. But because it’s not what McGee was expecting, he couldn’t see its good qualities. So he insisted on having everything remixed and re-recorded into muddy, bland oblivion.

So that’s lesson one. If you’re managing or part of a creative process, don’t measure its results against your original expectations. They might blind you to your real achievements.

It’s not always a lightning strike

There are times when creativity transforms the whole landscape. It’s a lightning strike – a sudden, overwhelming blast of change, appearing out of nowhere and dominating everything. That’s what ‘Screamadelica’ was – a surprising, brilliant achievement and a transformative step forwards.

But there’s only so much transformation that the world can handle – and, to be honest, only so much radical change that people can constructively create. So, when it came to a follow up, the Primals’ first instinct was to look backwards.

They understood that radical transformation needs to be balanced with consolidation and reflection. So, they made a very traditional album that drew on their deep musical roots, looking to understand and reassert their core selves and values in the aftermath of so much innovation.

So there’s lesson two. There’s such a thing as too much change. Pushing for it can exhaust both you and your audience. True creativity knows when to balance transformation with consolidation.

You won’t always get it straight away

The Primals went along with McGee’s rebuilding of the album because they weren’t very confident in what they’d created. They didn’t understand their own achievement – in fact, it’s only now that they’ve been able to properly assess and come to terms with it.

That’s actually quite  common. There’s a big difference between creating something new, and understanding exactly what it is you’ve created. Being the person who’s planted and nurtured all the trees can make it pretty much impossible to see the shape of the forest.

And that’s lesson three. Don’t judge what you’ve done too quickly. Watch other people engage with it and see what they get out of it. Understand it by distancing yourself from it.

And now let’s rock

Of course, all this is very important. But the real point of any creative achievement is the achievement itself. So now let’s just sit back and groove to a little timeless Memphis magic from the 90s. Enjoy!

And as a final footnote, here’s the BBC documentary about it all:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpUVOVDy0iw

How to future proof your brand

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One of the first things I learned about the future is that making lots of varied guesses about it is much more productive than trying make a few perfect predictions. That’s because the only thing you can confidently say about tomorrow is that it’ll surprise you.

So, the best way to future proof your brand is to imagine as many different versions of it as you can, then see how you’d react to them. That’s the futurist’s real role – to help you practice being surprised. Then you’ll find out how well you’ll cope with the unexpected and what really defines your business and your brand.

But how do you actually do it? Well, here’s one way that works for me:

What’s next?

Start by blasting out a list of possible future changes. Clones becoming our slaves! Brexit collapsing! Virtual reality replacing TV! The EU collapsing! Robots becoming real! Self-driving cars and trucks taking off! Aliens landing! Teleportation becoming cheap and easy! Whatever takes your fancy.

And be sure to balance the completely reasonable with the totally impossible. If you want to practice being surprised, you need to imagine some properly surprising events.

Utopian or dystopian?

Now think about how all those changes could work out. Free teleportation could be pretty utopian. But what if you’re running a bus company? Your business would disappear overnight. So from that point of view, it’s definitely dystopian.

Go through all of your changes and think about what they’d do to your business. Teleportation would transform estate agents, for example, because location just wouldn’t matter anymore.

What would you do?

Now pick the four changes that would have the biggest impact on what you do and how you do it. Choose a possible utopian, possible dystopian, impossible utopian and impossible dystopian one.

Discuss how you’d respond to each of them. Understand what could stay the same and what would have to change. Think about how you’d find opportunities in the dystopias. Explore any problems the utopias might throw up. Think practically about the impossible changes and impossibly about the practical ones.

What you’ll learn

Each scenario will help you think about how your business might change as the world changes around it. That’s useful in itself, because it gives you a greater sense of its possibilities and limits. And, taken together, all that will help you understand something even more important.

Ask yourself what you’ll always keep on doing for your customers, no matter how crazily the world’s changed. There’ll be something there – a single, central problem you’re always solving for them, no matter what.

Solving that problem is what your business is really about.

People will always need help with it, no matter how the world changes. And they’ll always come to you for that help, because you’re the experts in it. So, to future proof your brand, make sure that solving that problem is at the heart of everything your business says and does.

How to have a Good Idea

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I’m part consultant, part author. In both roles, I have to come up with new ideas – and they have to be good ones. So there’s one question people very often ask me:

‘How do you have a Good Idea?’

Well, a Good Idea can feel like it’s come from nowhere. But there’s actually a very specific process that can help you come up with one:

Understand your problem

Good Ideas solve problems. And to really solve a problem, you need to understand it. So, dig into your problem. Research it, then write yourself a brief that lays out:

  • What the problem is
  • Why you need to solve it RIGHT NOW
  • Any obstacles you need to overcome to solve it
  • Who’s going to benefit when you do solve it
  • Exactly:
    • what they’re going to get out of it
    • why that’s so important for them

Immerse yourself

Gather lots of information. Find out all you can about every part of your problem. If you can, experience it for yourself. Look for similar problems and see how other people have solved them. Fill your head with useful details.

And don’t stop there. Do some random browsing too. Is there something you’ve always wanted to find out about? Or a favourite book, film, song or whatever else you haven’t listened too for ages? Go and check them out. Indirect information can be as stimulating as directly useful stuff.

Get blasting

Now you’ve understood and explored your problem it’s time to get creative. Blast out as many ideas as you possibly can. Go quickly – you’re trying to explore as many different ways of solving your problem as possible. Don’t judge them – at this stage, there’s no need to. And, most importantly:

  • Go Crazy!

Create ridiculous, absurd, impossible ideas. That’ll help you think beyond the boundaries, and also help you understand where the boundaries really are. Also, you’ll have a lot of fun, and that’ll help even more ideas flow.

Distract yourself

Now stop and go somewhere else entirely, to do something emotionally or imaginatively stimulating that has nothing to do with the Good Idea you want to create. Distract yourself with shiny new things so your subconscious mind can go to work. But don’t forget your notebook. Because…

The magic moment

Round about now, everything should come together and a truly Good Idea will just pop up in your head. It can happen anywhere, at any time, so be ready for it! Or you might look back over all the ideas you’ve already had, and realise that one of them is just perfect.

Make it even better

Your Good Idea is a wonderful, precious thing. But it’s also brand new. So, live with it for a bit. Test it against your brief. See if it needs a little polishing up. And then bounce it off a few people you trust. Talk them through your brief, then ask them how well they think your Good Idea works.

And that’s that! Happy Good Idea creating…

Information wants to be far more than free

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So that ‘Information wants to be free’ slogan has always annoyed me a little. Partially that’s because of what it’s led to – a world in which services support ‘free’ by turning their users into the product.

More importantly, it gets to me because it’s actually only one part of a much more inspiring statement about information – one that’s very useful when you’re thinking about brand comms, too.

How it all began

Before we get to that, let’s look at who first said it. Stewart Brand was a fascinating person, one of the people who brought together psychedelic philosophy and deep tech savvy to shape our modern relationship with technology and the online world.

He started out by appearing in Tom Wolfe books, producing shows for the Grateful Dead and helping film ‘The Mother of All Demos’, where tech visionary Doug Engelbart introduced the mouse, hypertext, video-conferencing, email, windows, live collaborative editing and much else to the world all the way back in December 1968. It’s astonishing.

Then Brand played a big role in how both personal computing and the online world developed, shaping them through his involvement in the Whole Earth Catalog (a kind of proto-web, sketching out how people would share information and build communities online), the WELL (one of the internet’s first and most inspirational virtual communities), the Global Business Network (which took utopian web thinking into the world of commerce) and many other projects.

In short, he knows what he’s talking about.

What Steward Brand actually said

So, back in 1984, in conversation with Steve Wozniak, Brand actually said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

That’s a much subtler and more interesting take on information in the digital age. It also has a fascinating message for marketeers.

Comms are made of information

Because comms are made of information, they too want to be both full of value and free.

On the one hand, when they reach the right person, they’re transformative. They should reset their audience’s sense of a particular challenge, and show how the brand can help them overcome that challenge. Brand comms should feel expensive, because they deliver such genuine, positive, relevant value.

On the other hand, they should be accessible at minimal cost in time, effort and money, painlessly reaching their audience at the right time in the right way with the right message. Brand comms should feel free, because they’re so easy for the right people to find, understand and share.

That’s a fascinating balance – and one well worth thinking about next time you’re working on the comms that bring your brand to life.

Distraction is the mother of invention

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I’ve just been planning out a ‘creative writing in business’ workshop. As part of it, I’m going to be sending people out for a slightly random wander round the neighbourhood. That might seem counter-intuitive – people usually think of workshops as being tightly planned and very focussed – but in fact purposeful self-distraction is key to the creative process.

I tend to think of it as letting your subconscious go to work. Whenever I’ve got a creative problem to solve, I start by gathering as much information as I can. That’s a very conscious, rational process. I want to learn as much as I can about whatever it is I’m looking at, and I want to know that I’ve learned it.

Say, for example, I’m coming up with a new name for a car. I’ll find out as much about the car as I can. I’ll try and understand what makes it unique, and what sort of people are going to be driving it. I’ll dig up information about its competitors, too. And I’ll do some more general reading, to help me get to grips with the way people are talking generally.

All that’s very helpful. But it’s only a starting point. I tend to think of it as a creative brief for my subconscious. Once I’ve briefed it, it needs some space and time to go to work. And that’s where the distraction comes in. It’s there to occupy the more superficial parts of my mind, so the deeper bits get all the time and space they need to do the job.

So, I might noodle around on the internet. I might go and make myself a coffee. I might take a stroll round the block, or go for a run. Anything that stops me thinking too directly about the problem tends to work. That’s when I find that the really good ideas tend to pop up.

In fact, that’s how naming a car worked the last time I had to do it. I’d had a couple of days of research, and I’d blasted out some basic name ideas, but none of them were really doing the job. So, I decided to leave it for a bit and cycle home. And that was the best thing I could have done.

The right name popped into my head while I was waiting for some traffic lights to turn green. I didn’t want to forget it, so I called up my voicemail and left myself a reminder of what it was. And then, back home, for a nice relaxed evening knowing that I could head back to the office the next day and know that the job was done!