Against Storytelling

A stock storytelling image which accompanied a Forbes article on storytelling.

A stock storytelling image which accompanied a Forbes article on storytelling.

Over the past several years, those of us who work in branding or design have heard various authorities tell us that we basically are “storytellers.” For the first couple times, I accepted this neologism without much resistance. But as more and more upper-management types used the word, it seemed… imprecise.

Perhaps “storytelling” was used as a way to get various disciplines to see beyond jargon or expertise and unite for the bigger picture. If so, then this was a noble cause. Strategists easily fall back on entrenched benchmarks and procedures, and designers over-rely on aesthetic standards which are more mythology than observational insight.

But generally, “storytelling” has become another tic which has lost meaning through over- and unconsidered use.

My particular storytelling bête noire is Gatorade’s G Series. Gatorade was developed at the University of Florida as a means to replenish nutrients, water, and electrolytes lost through the sweat of student athletes in the hot Florida weather. The university mascot was an alligator, so… Gatorade.

In 1983, the brand was bought by Quaker Oats, which was eventually bought by PepsiCo in 2001. Gatorade had gone from being the home-brew drink of a bunch of sweaty football players, to a global brand swilled in 80 countries.

Over time, Gatorade gradually added flavors beyond the original lemon-lime or orange. A number of rebranding attempts were made, but they generally were nothing more than naming exercises: Gatorade Fierce became Gatorade Bring It, Gatorade X-Factor became Gatorade Be Tough, et. al.

But in 2011 Gatorade discovered Storytelling. Specifically a story where the athlete prepares, competes, then recovers. And since these are three distinct stages, they needed three distinct and corresponding formulas, all explained via the experts at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute.

Of course, this new science needs to be shared and customers need to be educated. This means that instead of developing just one form for the bottle’s productions, they needed three. Because you don’t want to mix up a preparation brew with the recovery one.

The stations of the Gatorade G Series.

The stations of the Gatorade G Series.

Three different beverages are all well and good—if one is an elite athlete. As a Tour de France fan, I know how finely-tuned and measured the riders’ caloric intake is. Absolutely nothing is left to chance. And the percentages of various elements are constantly being tweaked—before, during and after each stage.

But there are only so many elite athletes who could properly benefit from such a product. For example, each year there are approximately 250,000 high school seniors on basketball teams. Of those, maybe 12,000 receive college scholarships. And from there, maybe 200 are drafted by the NBA. Fifty are then signed to a contract. And only a handful of that 50 earn a starting position.

So why all the marketing? I sincerely doubt that if I drank the G Series before, during, and after a bike ride through Brooklyn, that I would actually notice much of a difference. And when I look at people much more active than me, like the clients at the local Cross Fit studio, I also see them go after class to the bar next door. They may run faster than me, but they’re not quite elite athletes.

And that probably describes the majority of G Series customers.

So here’s the thing: several agencies and studios have gleefully taken credit for their part in developing the Gatorade G Series story. But it isn’t a story! It’s a process, reframed in slightly finer detail. The kind of process you might see in a Karate Kid training montage. Nothing more.

In his twice-weekly What The Fuck podcast, comedian Marc Maron describes the script development process for his television program, Maron, and learning the difference between a story and an event.

Standup comedians, like Maron, build routines out of events. They experience an event, make observations, and then reframe it through their particular comedic style. That may be more than enough to make an hour-long act. But it’s not a story. In a story, characters interact with each other in events. And through that process, the characters somehow learn, transform, grow, get married (comedy), die (tragedy), etc. Or not.

So when seen through that filter, most design and branded things are merely events. And these objects, phenomena, and experiences combine to make a character.

Which works for me.

For example… Martha Stewart is a brand. She’s the kind of brand where you can look at two things—say, dinner plates from two different lines—and make a distinction between them as to which one is more “Martha.” The secret of Martha Stewart’s success is that everyone knows her taste. You can sleep in a Martha bed, eat a Martha meal, and take a Martha bath. And that’s a different experience from sleeping in a Calvin bed, eating a Calvin, meal or taking a Calvin bath.

This is character.

When we watch a film, we learn about characters: their motivations, their point of view, their decision making process. And it’s the confirmation or contradiction, transformation or stagnation, of that character which helps build the story,

Apple’s packaging, user experience, product design, innovation… These are all elements of the Apple character. Now if Apple suddenly decides to build their version of Skynet in an attempt to subjugate humanity… That’s a story!

A simplistic definition in acting theory is that scenes are made of someone who has something and someone who wants something. This pretty much describes the dialog between brands and customers. Two characters, in a scene, which is part of a story. But not necessarily the kind of story under anyone’s control.

Parent company PepsiCo claims a focus on “environmental stewardship, activities to benefit society, and a commitment to build shareholder value by making PepsiCo a truly sustainable company.” Admittedly, I’m having some trouble in seeing how expanding one drink into three barely-different ones is an act of environmental stewardship.

But perhaps I just need to be told a story. Hopefully one that’s not a fantasy.

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