Categories
Startup

Welcome To The New Premiumization of Everything

When markets for premium toilet paper and convenience store wine start to prove themselves, a brand reckoning isn’t far behind.

When I arrived in Tokyo’s Nirita International Airport on a cold December morning, before I even searched for baggage claim, I had located my first asian 7-Eleven on the second floor of arrivals.

It was all there — puffy cloud pastries, fried chicken on a stick (soon to become my preferred breakfast for the next two weeks), racks of single sushi pieces in colorful wrapping — and it all lived up to the hype.

The fabled foodie culture that haloed 7-Elevens overseas just two years ago hadn’t quite come to the US at that point, but today something is changing.

 

More and more people are posting 7-Eleven food hauls, hunting down limited edition 7–Eleven foods, sanctifying new products with enthusiastic taste tests and talking about the midnight convenience store run more like a gastronome hobby than a stoner pastime.

Through their 7-SELECT private label, limited edition releases of emotionally driven food brands, the 7NOW delivery app and new lab stores that test concepts like turmeric slurpees, the company has started to drive a wedge between the words “convenience store” and “cheap junk food”.

Although many fan posts still use #junkfood, it is more of a term of endearment than derision.

There is an active hunt for that one 7-Eleven food you haven’t felt before. You may have seen Slurpees and Sour Patch Kids, but when you see a Slurpee push pop or a bag of only blue Sour Patch gummies, you feel delighted before you even know what you’re looking at.

 

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It’s a move straight out of the Trader Joe’s playbook: start a food movement around the thrill of discovery.

By constantly evolving their inventory and rearranging product mix in their stores, 7-Eleven is creating an experience where we can tell ourselves that we’re not only fun foodie people, but tastemakers on the bleeding edge of this new foodie movement — and it’s still dirt cheap.

This is the new premiumization. There is no premium price point but there is definitely a cost to participate. Whether it’s time, education, emotional investment or understanding the unwritten code, premium brands make us pay in ways that are perhaps more costly than money to begin with.

New premium brands don’t charge in dollars. They charge in expensive intangibles like time, emotion, education and understanding.

When you charge a premium that can’t be measured in dollars, you’re trading, not transacting. This isn’t an exchange of goods and services. This is a reciprocity of commitment. It’s very clearly a different kind of relationship.

Of course it doesn’t stop there. Last year, 7-Eleven launched their own premium private label bottled wines and canned wines, named Voyager Point and Roamer, respectively.

This is in addition to 7-Eleven’s value-priced Yosemite Road and Trojan Horse wines. As they build their wine selection horizontally across price segments, they’re signalling to the market that you don’t come to 7-Eleven to get cheap wine. You come to 7-Eleven to evolve your tastes.

That may seem like an exaggeration, but when taken in context with all of their other efforts to grow the brand story, including experimenting with private label meal kits, kombucha aisles, local craft drinks, patios, interior dining areas and rustic decor, you get the idea that you can invest time here.

There is something much more to be had than just food or convenience. You can feel all of the emotions that come with building a meaningful meal, and learn about the secret world of a well-stocked 7-Eleven.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s this: Anyone — literally anyone — can be a premium brand. We are living in a time when consumers will let brands change as they outgrow their heritage. They will allow for you to redefine yourself in a way that previous generations may have had difficulty with (i.e. New Coke).

The revolution is taking over every inch of real estate from the forgotten corners under your bathroom sink to the lines on your monthly portfolio statements.

But new premiumization isn’t just a clever story and good packaging. There’s more to it than meets the eye.

And when the dust settles, there will be winners and losers.

The Balloon Crowding Out Value and Luxury

To fully understand this new premiumization, we need to discard any old connotations around the word.

Premiumization is not a form of diffusion branding, nor is it a higher margin (although a higher price point may be there, it’s not core to the brand’s positioning). The notion of what is premium has completely untethered from the product, its heritage, its quality or its features.

Consider the endless parade of premium brands that are either eroding value from their luxury counterparts above, or stealing marketshare from their value-priced neighbors below.

Pay attention to where the real cost is incurred for each of these examples. Any premium in price pales in comparison to the emotional, educational, time or personal commitment cost hiding beneath the brand.

WaterWipes

In case you were wondering if there was a new way to package water and sell it, there is. This brand has taken over the baby wipes category by storm by virtue of the fact that its only ingredients are water and a drop of fruit extract. I’m a new mother and even though I know the mechanics at play here, I still co-sign this.

This is not an easy category to make gains in. It’s a commodity product, the behemoth that is Amazon had introduced their own private label version of baby wipes, and by 2016 they had driven the price so low, even Huggies and Pampers were forced to follow with cheaper prices.

When WaterWipes entered the US market, they became a viral hit. Billing themselves as the “World’s Purest Baby Wipes” and crafting a premium brand by way of storytelling, reimagining of a product’s meaning and it’s role in the home, they gained significant marketshare.

Although their cost is not core to their premium positioning, the fact that they command a 300% premium in the market does reveal something important —even water can be made more valuable. That’s 300% that has absolutely nothing to do with inherent quality, heritage, craftsmanship or luxury.

Pet Food

Remember when Fancy Feast and that flamboyant white cat were the only game in town?

 

Times have changed. Today’s market for premium pet food runs the gamut from niche local brands inspired by clean eating, to celebrity fronted names like Rachel Ray’s Nutrish brand dog food.

Consider the fact that you can now buy pet food in the pet food aisle, the refrigerated foods, the frozen section, in health food stores, in sporting goods stores, in gourmet cooking stores, have it delivered fresh to your door, and of course, get it online.

Premium pet food isn’t about feeding an animal. It’s about the overall lifestyle of the pet owner. That’s why Nutrish’s parent company Ainsworth Pet Nutrition was able to sell to J.M. Smucker Co. for nearly $2 billion.

Uqora

This is an interesting premium brand that I have been watching for a while, and consistently I have seen them make smart, brand-led moves.

Uqora is an over-the-counter supplement brand that helps women deal with potentially dangerous urinary tract infections, often triggered by sex. The medical community has no real preventative solution other than antibiotics, and an invisible faction of women has silently suffered without a real solution — a story Uqora has carefully managed to surface in their content.

But if you do some searching, you will find that a supplement called D-Mannose has helped women who are searching for a DIY cure. You can buy D-Mannose, basically a sugar that prevents bacteria from attaching to the urinary tract, in bulk on Amazon.

Uquora has taken this commodity supplement and repackaged it with a hefty amount of vitamin C. D-Mannose is not rare or exotic. It’s cheap. It’s available for delivery. It’s there if you need it.

What made this a premium brand was the fact that they created a new narrative — a narrative that forced its users to invest emotionally, personally change their views and pay with the time it took them to learn this new perspective. This is the premium price.

To truly understand the genius in their approach, you have to first take a look at something like Viagra.

Both Viagra and Uqora are actually in the business of sex. And not just any kind of sex, but sex inside of a relationship. Viagra took the subject of erectile dysfunction, a very emotionally charged issue between a couple, and made ads like this:

It’s been well documented that when ED hits, the woman probably doesn’t demand sex like an expectant minx. Instead, she’s likely to blame herself and feel a just as much shame as her male partner, making an already loaded issue even more complicated. Ads like this often misrepresent the emotional turmoil that ED can cause.

Uquora also exists between two people in the context of their sex lives, but their approach is very different (watch the video here):

They get right into that uncomfortable spot between two people. They involve both parties. They uncover triggers and fears in a way that others have failed to do, and they do it in a supportive context.

This is not a premium product, but it is a premium brand.

The list goes on and on…

  • Karmicare and Twice: Two different toothpaste brands, both deconstructing the toothbrushing experience into day and night rituals, both reinventing your relationship with your mouth.
  • The InstantPot retail phenomenon: Basically the same pressure cooker that we’ve always been afraid to use, but suddenly made friendly with better buttons and a new ethos around the magic of super-fast cooking.
  • Blenders like Vitamix: Simple countertop machines that have no business flaunting so much horsepower, but have become a $500 symbol of middle-class superiority.
  • Taco Bell Hotel: We all laughed. And then it sold out in two minutes.
  • Peach Goods Toilet Paper: It’s a subscription service that uses phrases like “Developed with diligence”, “Made in American plain country” and “We believe in moments for ourselves”. And they’re in good company with other names like Tushy , Who Gives A Crap, No. 2 and Cheeky Monkey.

When you pay for these brands, you pay with a piece of your identity. If you become emotionally invested, have to learn a new code or spend time to understand something you didn’t know before, then you are paying for the premium.

Alchemy at the Edges of Your Category

So why is all of this happening?

The bulk of my research as a brand strategist has led to this question. Why are today’s consumers fueling the emergence of premium brands across every single category?

Yes, we’ve moved into the experience economy. Yes, people want to participate in stories. But these aren’t the answers, these are the effects.

What’s happening is a shift in where we draw value as a culture. Where we once found meaning in the focused perfection of a single product or vertical, we now look for meaning in the blending between spaces.

The intimate act of eating has birthed a movement around functional foods (food + medicine), traditional education was the unwitting precursor to edutainment brands like Masterclass (education + entertainment), and even something as simple as the humble water bottle has evolved into a new ‘hydration’ category with brands like S’well and Corkcicle (water bottles + lifestyle).

When you combine to create something entirely new, you build meaning where there was none before — the pinnacle of brand-led companies. It’s this alchemy that has powered the premium market.

You see this blending everywhere:

  • Food is the new religion: “Good” foods, “bad” foods, “clean” foods, “pure” foods — we’ve come to apply religious principles to the foods we eat because, as researchers like Alan Levinovitz have pointed out, “Seeking out natural products is about health, yes, but holistic health. Physical and spiritual, personal and planetary. Nature becomes a secular stand-in for God, and the word ‘natural’ a synonym for ‘holy.’”
  • Gyms are the new temple: SoulCycle is a daily pilgrimage toward an out-of-body experience. CrossFit is where we push ourselves from manliness to godliness. Heated yoga inspires heart-racing highs. We emerge from all of these hallowed spaces as better, purer beings.
  • Pets are the new children: You don’t need to go any further than the phrase “fur baby” to see this. We millennials see our pets as ‘starter children’ and spend money on them like we would children, too. Heated cat houses, dog ice cream, puppy beer, cat wine, ornate halloween costumes, rechargeable fetch machines and leash umbrellas are just the eccentric goods that come with the territory.
  • Founders and VCs are the new celebrities: It was only weird for a little while when Ben Horowitz hung out with Kanye. Gary Vaynerchuck has a one-man documentary crew follow him around. Elon Musk’s autograph is probably worth more than any A-lister in Hollywood. You see the pattern.

As a culture, we are searching for new meaning, and new meaning comes from the unexpected combinations that cause us to experience and understand the world differently.

If 7-Eleven would have been bold enough to try today’s rebrand 30 years ago, it wouldn’t have worked. Back then, we were still deriving meaning from categories in silos (the best car, the best tech, the best product, the best anything).

But we, the consumer, have changed. We didn’t scoff at 7-Eleven’s moves because we understand they’re going somewhere. We know that if we invest in them with our patience and curiosity, they will delight us.

Who Will Be Standing When the Dust Settles

We’re living in the wild west of premiumization right now. The rules are still being written and every time a new cowboy comes riding into town, the everyone gets shaken up.

But there is one truth emerging, and it is the rule that will define the winners and losers when the landscape starts to mature.

The winners in the new premium space will be the ones that committed to something bigger.

Forget story, forget packaging, forget design, forget all the trappings of a flashy new D2C company. Instead, pay attention to who is consistently creating meaning outside of themselves.

You don’t need to be in CPG to do this. Wealthsimple, a clear cut investment platform (like all those that have come before it) proves that.

They are not talking about how to invest and make money. They are having a much larger conversation about what money means.

This isn’t a simple topic. Everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dr. Laura has tried to tackle it… but perhaps never before has an investment firm tried like this.

Wealthsimple’s blog untangles the messy money stories we all share with people like Sasha Lane, Jonathan Van Ness and Kim Kardashian.

In their Money Diaries section of the Wealthsimple Magazine, the company reveals the very messy, very human side of how famous people deal with money. You quickly come to understand that money is about self-worth wrapped up in all kinds of emotions like fear, denial and joy. The content is engineered to remove judgement and change your relationship with your own bank statement.

“We never had money. You learn, as a kid whose family is broke, not to ask for things. You even learn not to want things. Just be happy with the basics you need to survive: food, clothes, and a place to live, which my mom always found a way to provide.

But every year, as Christmas approached, it meant the same heartbreaking ritual. My mom would sit my brother Sergio and I down and say to us, “I’m so sorry, but there won’t be any Christmas presents this year. I just can’t really make it happen.” She’d have tears in her eyes.

It wasn’t the lack of presents that broke my heart; it was seeing my mom feeling like she’d failed us, even though we’d tell her again and again that she hadn’t.”

– Excerpt from interview with actress Sasha Lane

In the Dear Ms. Etiquette section, readers get answers to hairy questions like “Do I need to have to lend my siblings money?” and “I just got engaged! Yay! So can I ask him for a prenup or does that mean I’m actually dead inside?”

This isn’t really about etiquette so much as it is about permission. Their readers already know what is right. What they’re really seeking is for someone to tell them it is.

All of this content is about creating something that didn’t exist before it. Wealthsimple is taking a machete into the overgrown wilderness that is money and clearing a path for people to inch forward in.

It’s a commitment, and if you felt a range of cathartic emotions as you clickholed your way deeper into this excellent storytelling, then you repaid that commitment with a premium.

Even our dear friends at 7-Eleven are committed to something bigger.

“We’ve been on this journey to redefine convenience,” said EVP Gurmeet Singh in a recent statement. “This makes it easy for people to stay in the moment.”

Nice, but not entirely accurate. What they’ve really committed to is honoring the food some of us love, but others among us hurtfully call “junk”.

Whether that’s reinventing it to be healthier, repackaging it to delight us as it did when we were children, or pairing it with something a bit more adult, it’s all the same thing: a way to create new meaning where there was none before.

Categories
Marketing

These Are The Brand Moves You Should Be Paying Attention To Right Now

The Smithsonian shows that our collective scrambling to define the canon is, in fact, a rebellious act. Alrosa begs the question of ownership. Outdoor Voices pulls a Mariah Carey.

I write a lot about defining strategy and how to build a brand. My goal is to always look for companies that are doing it right because those are the ones we best learn from (although it would be much easier to simply point out the ones that are doing it wrong).

Strategy, however, is only half the equation. The way companies bring those strategies to life can reveal a whole new world of learnings. Their tactics, decisions and moves are all signals to the consumer and to the marketplace.

They show us both what people want now, and how much they are willing to tolerate in being pushed into the future.

Here are some recent brand moves that have definitely edged the conversation forward.

The Smithsonian shows interest in obtaining the artwork of migrant children detained at the border.

You couldn’t hear this story without feeling something. After CNN shared images of drawings by migrant children who were recently released to a respite center in McAllen, Texas, the Smithsonian reached out to inquire about obtaining the disturbing works of art. Many of the works depicted heavy metal cages and towering authority figures in hats.

Via The New York Times.

The Smithsonian describes itself as a museum, a research and education organization, and an “opener of doors”. But this move is about much more.

The brand signal here is clear. While other museums exist to celebrate America, the Smithsonian is here to hold it accountable.

  • The Smithsonian has accepted the fact that every act is political (and there’s good reason for that, as Professor Scott Galloway has explained). By collecting these works, they act as the ultimate witness to America’s actions — a very provocative role to play as a brand.
  • There’s perhaps no stronger way to flex your muscle as a brand than to choose which voices matter. It’s especially poignant as they’ve chosen to highlight the wordless voices of children. It opens up much more opportunity for discussion in a way that public outcry and political reporting can’t touch.
  • Art has always been controlled by the gatekeepers of history, but it looks like that’s changing. Gatekeepers only have control if you give it to them, and in the art world, there is a stubborn old guard that refuses to open the door (and perhaps that is the “door” that the Smithsonian references in their description).
  • This reminds me of other brands that are experimenting with the fabric of culture and history like Otis, an alternative investment platform that deals in items of cultural currency like Air Jordans and KAWS works. They’re democratizing both the investment itself and the act of choosing what is worth investing in.
  • There are also the admirable efforts of companies like Fast Retailing (Uniqlo’s parent company) who may not be acting as a cultural gatekeeper, but say something about it when they make genuine efforts to hire refugees.

Alrosa creates digital passports for diamonds that beg the question of ownership.

Alrosa has tested out an interesting new initiative for its gems: electronic passports that “will tell the buyer the gem’s age, the place and date of its extraction, as well as the time and place of its cutting and the craftsman’s name and background.”

If you haven’t heard, millennials are cooling on the complicated idea of diamonds. Alrosa is hoping transparency and proof of sustainability will change that. It’s a noble brand tactic but not a strategy. Causes are never strategies, but that’s beside the point.

What matters here is who is executing the initiative. Alrosa is the world’s second largest diamond miner. You may own one of their stones but you’d never know it.

They are a producer taking on the responsibility of a retailer in branding the product, proof that everyone in the supply chain is in the business of branding now.

  • Calling it a passport is interesting. The word passport is on-the-grid, not off. It’s about permission to move freely. It’s about having a state given identity.
  • If you grew up in California like me, you were exposed to nonstop Diamond Exchange television ads touting “GIA and EGA certified”. The GIA (Gemological Institute of America), a monolithic governing body that works to standardize the trade, recently added a 5th “C” to their list of Color, Cut, Clarity and Carats — Country of origin. Major move, if not more symbolic than anything else.
  • This reminds me of brands like Toogood who use labeling as a way to create meaning and connection with their products. Their garments have large tags sewn into the lining with a record of its name, designer and country, among other details. Blank lines for “Sold By” and “Worn By” complete the story once they’re filled in.
  • These moves by Alrosa and Toogood both convey a philosophy about what it means to “own” or use something. Do we really own a fine item, or are we just using it for a portion of its lifetime?
Toogood label.

Outdoor Voices flexes their muscle by refusing to tell an athleisure story.

A few people this week emailed me a New York Times interview with Outdoor Voices founder Ty Haney. It was this quote that caught their eye:

“We’re not up against the Nikes, Under Armours and Lulus of the world. What we’re up against is people’s negative perceptions of themselves.”

But in product terms, Outdoor voices is up against other sportswear and athleisure brands, and that underscores the brilliance of this quote. Ty Haney is talking from a brand perspective, not product. She knows she’s selling a story first and foremost.

  • If your brand isn’t informing actual business decisions — not just marketing or design — then you’re not really building a brand… and Ty Haney backs this up with a mention of the new Exercise Dress. If exercise + dress feels weird to you, that’s a good thing. Outdoor Voices’ brand has actually informed their product design. That tension you feel in the name is because they’re not creating athleisure, they’re creating a new definition of what it means to be active.
  • Netflix’s former VP of Product Management recently said, “at world-class companies, you often see exceptional teamwork between marketing and product teams, where the marketing team defines the brand, and the product team helps bring it to life.” This is where brand-led companies are going in the future.

  • Speaking of Netflix, this reminds me of CEO Reed Hastings once saying that their biggest competitor was “sleep”. That’s a baller claim. When other companies don’t even register on your radar, you’re sending a bold message to the market.
  • Branding genius Mariah Carey owns this move. When asked about other mega pop stars like Jennifer Lopez or Demi Lovato, her simple response is “I don’t know her.” It’s the shade that’s launched a thousand memes.

What else?

Have you seen any smart moves in a vertical? Is someone forcing a new conversation?

Let me know in the comments or email me at jasmine@theconceptbureau.com.

Categories
Storytelling

How To Tell A Story People Will Never Forget

[Photo by Very Quiet.]

5 rules for deep storytelling that go beyond the obvious.

I already write a lot about what makes a good story. Equally as important, however, is how you tell it.

If you’ve ever told a good story but failed to get an engaged response, it’s likely because you weren’t opening the world of that story wide enough so that the audience could step inside of it.

The stories we carry with us are carefully wrapped and sealed memories in our minds. We create mental frameworks and language structures around them in order to preserve what’s inside.

But if you want others to experience that story the way you did, you’ll need to pry away some of those layers in order to let them in.

The stories people remember — whether they are brand stories, personal tales or cultural narratives — are the ones that reveal something about the listener, and you can’t do that if you‘re stuck in the perspective of the teller.

Memorable stories also follow some common patterns:

  • Repetition: Themes, poetry, recurring feeling… these are the things we are often left with in a good story. If you ever read Love You Forever as a child (or parent), I guarantee the repetition of that book stayed with you for years later into life.
  • Surprises: Emotional or otherwise. The surprise character, the surprise twist, the surprise ending… but nothing comes close to the surprise realization. Think of the epiphany you experienced watching The Matrix, Jurassic Park, Philadelphia or Super Size Me for the first time. We all walked into the theater one person, and out another.
  • Proof: The proof is in the delivery. If the story tells me something, then the delivery demonstrates its validity. Whether it’s the simplicity, passion, poeticism, authority or conviction of that delivery, it’s how it’s told that matters. Look at any popular TED Talk and you’ll see why.

From these patterns come 5 rules for deep storytelling that we’ll dive into in the next section:

1. Make the first sacrifice.
2. Trade the lesson for the theme.
3. Create pockets of emotional contrast.
4. Don’t give them a chance to ask.
5. Make your claim, then explain it.

As you read, you’ll notice they’re not so much about communicating a story to your audience, but rather creating a shared experience with them.

That shared experience dissolves the separation between you and the listener/ reader/ spectator, so that they may be able to walk inside the same universe you’re revisiting.

If done right, you will cause a small change in others, just as the story created a change within you.

Effective stories leave both you and the audience as different people by the end.

Know where that end point is, and then use these principles to help get them there.

 


1. Make the first sacrifice.

Storytelling is an exchange where one offers something, and asks the other for their attention in return.

It‘s a clear give and take, just as you might feel in a conversation with a stranger on the subway or a sales clerk — through their intonations and reactions, you will quickly know just how willing they are to exchange with you.

Your first words are the invitation to an intimate trade.

The sooner you can sense the willingness coming (or not coming) from the other side, the sooner you’ll be able to control how the trade plays out.

Conventional wisdom says to open with a personal anecdote in order to create a connection with your audience, but that’s not good advice.

We all have anecdotes, and just because they are personal doesn’t mean the audience will care.

What people do care about, however, is the gesture of sacrifice.

A sacrifice is an intimate piece of yourself that reveals how you view the world.

Scott Galloway consistently makes the first sacrifice in his No Mercy/ No Malice blog. Each post masterfully raises the stakes at the top of the exchange.

In the opening for his recent post ‘What Is Heaven?’, he surfaces an unmistakable emotional fingerprint:

Read the full post (highly recommended) here.

This could have easily been a two-dimensional personal anecdote, but instead, he ventured into personal thoughts that expose his view of the world as it was formed. We were actually given something beneath the surface of the story, and that gesture compelled us to move deeper.

In such a moment of vulnerability, you’re offering something of true value — your emotional fingerprint and unique context that signals where the exchange may go.

It is this gesture, not the story or personal anecdote, that communicates your willingness to trade. Your audience can either rise to meet your willingness or shy away from it, but the one thing they cannot do is remain indifferent.

The first sacrifice works because it operates on persuasion.

A recent study by a team of research psychologists in Texas found that when it comes to persuasive communication, framing your relationship with the other party can be enough to sway someone to your will.

A group of dating couples was recruited in order to see if different communication styles yielded different results in relationship negotiation.

The act of framing the relationship worked significantly better than coercion or even rationalization.

…there was a third set of communicators who employed a breathtakingly simple and successful procedure that we term the relationship-raising approach. Before making a request for change from their partner, they merely made mention of their existing relationship.

They might say, “You know, we’ve been together for a while now” or “We’re a couple; we share the same goals.” Then, they’d deliver their appeal: “So, I’d appreciate it if you could find a way to change your stand on this one.” Or, in the most streamlined version of the relationship-raising approach, these individuals simply incorporated the pronouns “we,” “our,” and “us” into their request.

Similarly, storytelling is a negotiation for time and attention.

Framing it in the context of a human relationship can tip the negotiation in your favor… and there is nothing more human than a revealing gesture or intimate offering.

When Galloway says he’s “pretty sure she’s standing in a corner in hell”, he is framing our relationship in a common empathy. Yes, we agree with his worldview, and we want more.

Saying you had a bad early experience with religion is a common refrain with little to offer. Describing how that early experience changed your childhood, your view of your mother in the corporate world, and your relationship with your own children is a true offering.

You can’t just tell the story. You have to give it.

2. Trade the lesson for a theme.

Most people don’t understand how a theme can transform a story, but look no further than some of our favorite cultural narratives and the effect is undeniable.

If we look at recent Pulitzer Prize winning novels and ask ourselves, “what was the point of this story?” it might be hard to immediately say. There may have been no real point or moral to the story to begin with.

If, however, we asked for themes, then the answers jump right out.

Narrative themes come from undeniable human truths that drive every outcome to the same place.

To give your story a theme is to give it an irresistible human depth. Themes reveal themselves over and over again, in different forms, but always constant.

We internalize themes more readily than lessons or morals to the story because instead of learning them, we rediscover them.

Narrative themes are a device we see a lot in television, too.

Have you ever noticed that some of your favorite episodes show different character arcs all revolving around the same thematic message?

In the Parks and Recreations episode End of the World (S4 E6), every character is living out the undeniable life theme of “having to let go of the past in order to move into the future”.

 

 

Leslie and Ben finally confront the reality of their breakup as Shauna Malwae-Tweep begins to enter the picture, Tom and Jean-Ralphio shutter their entertainment startup with a massive party where Tom gets closure with an ex, April and Andy finish off Andy’s bucket list as a newly wed couple, and it’s all couched in the story of the Reasonabilists — a cult that is celebrating the end of the world in a Pawnee park.

Everyone is exploring the same theme, but in different ways.

There may be no lesson or point, but the show’s story moves forward in a deeply satisfying way.

The same thing happened in most episodes of The Office, as it does each Sunday night in Westworld.

Themes thread a story together. They create a rich bedrock of feeling that everything else is built upon.

Even when we can’t remember the details of a good story, the theme helps us remember how we felt when we heard it.

3. Create pockets of emotional contrast.

We remember moments of heightened emotion more than other memories.

That’s why stories that compel an emotional response are the ones we tend to remember and repeat. It’s because scientifically speaking, emotion helps encode the story in our brains.

But other than following the conventional advice to communicate with passion and use strings of emotive words, how do we effectively draw out emotion in our audience?

By focusing on the distance between emotional states in the progression of a story.

Emotion is created in the contrasts.

Emotional responses are relative, and you can craft your story in a way that highlights the emotional fluctuations of your narrative as it moves forward.

In his 2014 speech to the graduating class of Maharishi University of Management, Jim Carrey created great distance between emotional highs and lows, one after another, in quick succession.

 

 

When he begins to tell his personal story about halfway through the speech, Carrey steadfastly traverses loss, glee, fear, silliness, irreverence, pride and sobering vulnerability without losing a beat.

He deliberately paired together contrasting emotions to create deep pockets of contrast.

Any time the emotion changes in a story, you can create a pocket that invites the audience in.

This goes for brand stories as well.

D2C (Direct to Consumer) brands have to be especially smart in how they position their stories because it’s often the story, not the product, that they’re actually selling.

Biossance, like many upstart beauty brands, has a social cause tied into their business model. But unlike most other brands, they turned that do-good message into an effective emotional spark point:

“A world changed” isn’t about doing good or donating to a cause. It’s about a very tangible epiphany. A new truth.

Brand-led companies like this have a specific point of view, and their stories demonstrate their commitment to it.

Others create emotional contrast through similar ‘aha’ moments — where once life was one way, and now it’s not.

Hims has a very lighthearted story and tone, but their ‘aha’ moment is quite evocative:

“We call bullshit” reverses generations of harmful gendered stereotypes.

You can move the pivot points of your story forward by using ‘aha’ moments, epiphanies and pockets of emotional contrast.

These are great devices for creating the spark that makes a story stick in peoples’ minds.

4. Don’t give them a chance to ask.

One of the most important principles we work into our branding and sales strategies for clients at Concept Bureau is to answer the question before it’s been asked.

Any time you’re telling a story — whether it’s regaling friends at a party, pitching a client, winning team buy-in or soft selling an idea — it’s imperative to anticipate the needs of your audience so that no questions arise.

If you give your listener a chance to ask, “wait, how did that happen?” or “hold on, didn’t you feel scared?”, you’ve lost control of your narrative.

And chances are you won’t even be able to answer the questions in the first place. Most people ask in their heads, but never out loud. Then they zone out and you have no chance at owning their interest again.

I listened to Howard Stern during a year of free Sirius XM that came with my new car, and despite my ambivalent feelings on the nature of his content, I couldn’t deny just how masterful an interviewer he was.

There was one interview so good, I sat in my parked car for 20 minutes after my bootcamp class had started, and nearly missed my session altogether:

 

 

Gossipy indulgence aside… why was it so good?

Because Howard Stern pushed Franco to answer the burning questions in our minds when he sensed Franco wasn’t giving them to us.

Howard Stern, not Franco, made the story emerge.

He gently guided the conversion so that no question lingered in our minds for more than a moment.

We’ve all been on the other side of that conversation where someone may be talking in detail, but fails to anticipate the things we are curious about. That makes for a frustrating and un-memorable experience.

You can certainly build tension with the plot of your story, but don’t create tension with the details.

Memorable stories anticipate the things we will be curious about.

There’s an old political adage that says “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” That’s basically all you need to know on this point.

If there is a lingering question, you’ve created distance between you and your listener.

Even if your story is written or presented asynchronously with your audience, imagine your listeners are in the room with you. Let them interrupt you and guide how to move forward.

When there is nothing to ask, people can give themselves fully to the narrative.

5. Make your claim, then explain it.

Most people do this in the reverse order.

We often explain and explain until we finally arrive at our point.

Confident people make their bold point up front and then follow with an explanation. It’s not only more satisfying for the listener, it’s also an effective way to convey authority.

Making your claim first is like putting your flag on a map.

It’s like saying, ‘This is where I am taking you. Now let me show you how we will get there.’ If you reverse that sentiment, it loses all of its power.

Warby Parker does exactly this with their About page (red underline added):

The story first plots each point with conviction, and then explains how they arrived at that point.

Although it may seem a bit stilted and counterintuitive in practice, writing a story this way creates an authoritative voice that much easier to trust and follow.

Compare that to the story of the Australian eyewear label Pared:

This is just as true a story as Warby Parker’s, but notice how different this chronological telling is when there is no mapping of strong points for the audience to tether themselves to.

Not only is there no structure, but there is no memorable anchor to internalize. If there are meaningful points, they are buried in a stream of consciousness.

To tell a strong story, lay out your claims at the top of each arc.

 


 

Many of the keys to being a good storyteller are the same things that make you a good communicator.

Unforgettable stories are the ones that make people realize something about themselves.

Make them take a side.

Force them to reconcile something in their heads.

Change their worldview (no matter how slightly).

Stepping outside of yourself, making the memory come alive and creating a shared experience with your audience are, more simply put, just ways to lower the barrier between you and another person.

If you have a great story to share, make sure you’re sharing it in a way people can truly experience.