Frye Alert

PSFK Management (l-r): Jeff Weiner (Business Development), Dan Gould (Content), Hedyeh Parsia (Events & Operations), Piers Fawkes (Founder & CEO), Scott Lachut (Consultancy)
PSFK Management, left to right: Jeff Weiner (Business Development),
Dan Gould (Content), Hedyeh Parsia (Events & Operations), Piers Fawkes
(Founder & CEO), Scott Lachut (Consultancy)

PSFK is a New York City based trends research and innovation company that publishes a daily news site, provides trends research and innovation consultancy, manages a network of freelance experts and hosts idea-generating events. We aim to inspire our readers, our clients and our guests to make things better – whether that’s better products, better services, better lives or a better world.

— From the PSFK Website

I’m not sure exactly what most of that entails, but I do know that PSFK put up a long post yesterday — “Four Storytelling Genres of Brand Re-Invention” — adapting Frye’s theory of myths wholesale (although they probably should have valued it retail).  A sample:

The literary critic Herman Northrop Frye explored the typology of narrative genres. He emerged with a core set, you might call the Four Seasons; Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Irony. These archetypal genres play an important role in the history of literary traditions, media, and the cultural psyche. Frye argued that most stories about the human experience fall into one of these four general buckets. There’s some great insight to draw on when it comes to the process of re-invention.

1. ROMANCE represents a “back to origin” story thru re-commitment to core values and re-interpretation of the past.

This is a very popular genre that guides many if not most brand re-inventions. The Obama political campaign was based on these principles. While the message was built on change, it was always in the context of fulfilling our ancient promise and manifest destiny as a nation. Those famous Moleskine notebooks is equally a story of an almost defunct brand with legendary origins, brought back from obscurity and re-packaged for the new context of culture creatives.

Another great example is that of Apple. Just last week Apple replaced Microsoft as the largest market cap tech company in the world. Yet back in 1997, Apple was in a different place. When Steve Jobs returned, it was on the brink of bankruptcy, and a strong acquisition target. Jobs re-ignited the fire – by reminding people of the company’s DNA and its legacy for free-spirited ingenuity. Its no small coincidence, that equally in 1997 Apple launched its groundbreaking Think Different campaign. It announced first to itself and then the world, that it remembered who it really was.

2. TRAGEDY is the classic redemption storyline.

We love it when our heroes fall from grace only to get back up for another chapter. It’s how Donald Trump and Martha Stewart got a second chance and each became ever bigger global brands. And it’s what both Toyota and Tiger Woods are now desperately praying they can accomplish.

Domino’s Pizza is an example of a big brand success to give us hope. The brand hit rock bottom last year after two employees posted a Youtube video with distasteful food pranks played on unsuspecting customers. The scandal that ensued but Domino’s in the brand reputation hot seat.

Fast forward to the spring 2010. Domino’s current campaign is a mea culpa to the world. In the ads, executives acknowledge how they lost touch with the quality and taste of their product. In turn, they listened soberly to customer complaints and have re-formulated their pizza into something they can be proud of. They’ve also created a marketing campaign with incentives for people to come back and give them a chance. Two medium pizzas for just $5.99 each! I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

3. COMEDY is a genre of playful brand reinvention, a retro-forward revival anchored in nostalgic terms.

Think Mini-Cooper or Volkswagen Beetle. Both successful brand reintroductions were the result of celebrating a certain ethos, lifestyle, and icon of a different era. Taking a cultural moment in history and reinterpreting the brand to today’s context.

Sometimes the comedic angle can backfire. Just ask Oldsmobile, who’s attempt to refashion the brand for a new generation only alienated its core demographic, eventually defuncting the brand.

Check out this video and see for yourself how the story gets lost in translation. There is in effect no new story to latch onto. No reason for young people to believe in the evolved storyline.

4. IRONY is the act of transforming into the antithesis of what you once where.

Sometimes the best way to defy critics is to embrace and become the opposite of what you once where. As the biggest corporation in the world, Walmart was long criticized for aggressive corporate practices. It became the poster child and lead target for environmentalists and activists around the globe. Through an ambitious re-branding campaign, Walmart is re-fashioning its image as a global leader on the issue of sustainability. Its new tagline, “save money, live better” recognizes consumers want a brand story that lives beyond just the rational value proposition.

Ironically, a brand perception study by BBMG in 2009 reveals the ambiguity of brand re-inventions. The survey asked 2,000 Americans about big brands and their perceived environmental and corporate responsibility practices. The best brand in America? Walmart. The worst brand in America? You guessed it. Walmart. Even the best executed brand re-invention will lead to competing storylines. Your story isn’t powerful unless you have both believers and non-believers. Of course, over time you want to tip the scales with more believers than non.

Exploring the convergence of Genres.

These four story genres are not mutually exclusive in the course of a brand re-invention. Consider Microsoft’s coordinated efforts with support from legendary Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Think back. Do you recall those weird ironic commercials with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates? At the time, we all scratched our heads, wondering WTF? In retrospect, it was a stroke of genius – intentionally designed to create cognitive dissonance, and confuse the mind, in the face of growing negative associations with the Microsoft brand. It was an act of brand story theater, a metaphoric reset button, which created a blank slate canvas on which new brand story associations could then be introduced. The Genre of Irony when effectively used can literally turn things upside down.

Then came the “I am a PC” campaign which the followed in the Genre of Romance which suggests you should proud and embrace who you are. Follow your dreams. Even when misunderstood. Make no apologies. Interestingly, next came the Windows 7 re-launch, which used a “we listened to the people” message line, to embody more the Genre of Tragedy and its redemptive story arc as an acknowledgment of previous less than stellar Windows releases.

Different story genres are appropriate at different times, just like you’d pick a certain movie to match your mood. The key is to focus on believability, and what will make people receptive to consider an evolution in your story.

Checklist for Believability

  • Why should people care about the evolving story?
  • Can your audience personally relate/identify with the new story?
  • How will you overcome the risks and fear of adoption?
  • What shows or proves that your re-invention is for real?

So when it comes to brand re-invention, you have to determine the context in which you’re telling your story. Is it a time to apologize or a time to re-commit? These are the nuances that all brand stories must tease out. Lets just hope some enlightened executive at BP is listening.

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