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The Best Brands Don't Tell You What To Think

4 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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I love storytelling. To me, it's what makes advertising work. We tell stories to create an emotional connection with people, so they care about the brand more than just a commodity. It's why people buy Nike, even though there are better shoes. Why people get Apple products, though some Androids have better features.

Not many disagree with me there. But this next part makes me some enemies.

See, our industry has defined "storytelling" in a very narrow way. And it's not about the medium, because the same issue is on TV and print as it is on Facebook and Instagram. It's the difference between a "universal story" and a "personal story".

A story's relevance is relative.

And even though I'll get a lot of angry stares, here's the truth: being relevant is what we've always aimed for, but how we're relevant is what needs to change.



The Universal Story

Back in the late '80s, Wieden+Kennedy coined the phrase "Just Do It" as Nike's slogan. This was the era of the big message, that singular saying that stuck with people. When things like, "Think Different" made your brand stand out from the rest of the world.

Advertisers knew that in order to create a brand that people loved, they needed to say something deeper than "buy our sneakers, yo!" With "Just Do It" they found a phrase that tapped into a powerful insight: people find it easier to make excuses than to take action.

You need both the universal story and the personal story.

But they had to say the same thing to everyone. They were limited by the media technology of their time: TV, print, OOH, radio. It was all mass-communication. There was no such thing as "targeting" in the way we know it today. By necessity, they had to be universal, and craft a singular brand message that defined what Nike meant, equally, to everybody, with every campaign.

And that's where we've been for the past 40 - 50 years.

The Personal Story

Something's changed recently. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Google, YouTube, and tons of others developed the ability to not be a "one to everyone" platform, like TV is. Instead, they created a targeting method that allowed us to give different creative to different people. But why would we do that?

Because a story's relevance is relative. Let me explain.

Look at Nike. It's a massive brand, with a voice and message that's connected with millions, if not billions, of people around the world. It'd be ridiculous to think that Nike, as a brand, means the same thing to every single one of those people.

  • To a woman, Nike may stand for female empowerment.
  • To an athlete, it's the daily motivation to push themselves.
  • To the couch potato, it's the aspiration to get them moving.
  • To the child, it's the super hero they want to be.

There are countless different meanings Nike could have. Just as many meanings as people. So, if we can make creative that speaks to all of those mindsets (or as many of them as possible), then we create stories that aren't universal, but personal.

We achieve relevance again.

What's Holding Us Back

We don't do this for a few key reasons:

  • The ad industry isn't built for the scale of content this requires.
  • Traditional mindsets are resistant to this new outlook.
  • Brands want to be safe and control what they stand for.

This isn't a battle between TV and digital. The only reason digital is able to embrace this personalized story mindset is because the technology on TV is lagging. But it will catch up, and when it does, we'll have the same need to shift from the universal to the personal.

But that doesn't mean the universal brand message is moot. No, you need both the universal story and the personal story. It's like building a house: the universal message is the foundation, while each room is a personalized story. One doesn't matter without the other.

Looking Closer

The funny thing is, the industry has accepted that brands mean different things to different people in different parts of the world. That's why, for instance, there are different agencies that handle Toyota in Europe, in Japan, and in the US.

But let's break that down even further.

Every country has a diverse range of people, and to assume that they all share the same view of the brand, that the brand means only one thing to all of them, is foolish. Even when we had a singular brand message across the board, it still had different meanings to each person. But we could only say one of them.

Now, we can create for those different meanings, telling personal stories from a brand that isn't forcing you to believe what it wants you to believe. Instead, it's a brand that listened to you, heard what it means to you, and is embracing it.

We've made it personal.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this, say hello @thejeremycarson. LinkedIn Instagram

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