Before I write anything about the topic of this blog (The Power of Words) I’m going to take a short detour and tell you a story. I’m telling you this story because without it, this becomes another “here’s something really important you should think about” advice article that you’ll skim. With this story, my perspective might actually mean something to you. I hope you’ll feel something and maybe, just maybe, you might find it relevant to your work.
My mom lives on her own in a small farm town in Idaho. A woman of the Great Depression era, she is a strong, fiercely independent person. Her intellectual prowess, her insatiable curiosity and her continuously evolving world view have provided me with an example of how to gracefully age, as well as some epiphanies about how I should approach my life.
About every two weeks I head up to spend Sunday morning with her. We make breakfast, talk about the topics she has meticulously recorded by hand in a spiral-bound notebook and then later watch Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday over lunch. During these visits, she is revealing a lot about herself that she’s never shared before, letting me see her in an entirely new light. One day, she told me about her childhood.
During the Depression, her family was hit hard, beset by challenge after challenge, setback after setback. I can’t give the description of her life justice in this short blog, but they were extremely poor, as her father kept losing his job and each successive job he found paid less. To make matters worse, their house burned down, forcing them to move into a crowded house with relatives until her father could find the time and money to rebuild. If that wasn’t enough, while in those very cramped quarters her mother died, and her father eventually married her aunt out of necessity. She had a very difficult childhood.
There was an assumption in her family that once high school was completed you would get a job and contribute back to the family. There was no discussion of college or talk of a profession or career. “As a teenager, going to college never even entered my mind,” she reminisced. On one Sunday during the main meal, my mom could tell that something was bothering her older sister, as she mostly played with her food and was constantly fidgeting. Toward the end of the meal, her sister finally broke into tears and blurted, “I want to go to college!”
There was stunned silence at the table. Mom said she was petrified, certain her sister was going to get into all kinds of trouble. “But instead,” she recalled, “Daddy just looked at her and said ‘OK.’ ” Within a couple of weeks, her father had figured out how to get her sister to college. But of even more importance, my mom explained, was that she now assumed she was also going to college. And she not only finished her undergraduate degree, she completed her Masters of Education as well.
As my mom told this story, she had a far-off gaze that is typical as we think of the past. As she ended the story, though, she looked at me very intently and said, “I will always find it remarkable that a single phrase can change the entire course of one’s life.”
The Power of Words
On the drive home, I just couldn’t get that story out of my head. There was just something about it that kept gnawing at me, that just wouldn’t go away. Eventually I realized that it resonated so greatly with me because it was causing me to question if I was putting enough care and thought into the stories I create in my work.
Something that is often unique about specialty brands is they have great stories behind them. There is a meaning and purpose in them that goes far beyond a good idea and effective marketing. Business for specialty brands isn’t just about increasing volume and generating revenue, it is equally about why the brand exists in the first place. People buy these products or services because they believe in the story, and by being true to that story these brands build great trust and loyalty. Is loyalty dead, as so many business pundits suggest? Not with specialty brands.
Because of this alignment in purpose, it is important that we understand what really matters to our core audience and we must resolutely and painstakingly focus our story around that. That doesn’t come through surveys, data mining or social media monitoring, although those methods can help. We get at what matters by living in our customers’ worlds, listening to them and talking with them in a real, genuine way. We get to know them as people, not segments or personas.
Only then can we craft our story, written in collaboration with the communities in which we engage with, the very people who buy our products and services. Our words must be assiduously chosen, written genuinely and in plain English. Cleverness or manipulation that works in the mass world must be banned. Tried and true techniques known to improve response by x% should be avoided. “Best practice” should not be in our vocabulary, because that simply means we’re following everyone else’s rules. Our story, and our brand, must be uniquely us.
My mom found it remarkable that a single phrase could change the trajectory of her life. I, too, find it remarkable that the words in a story can change the entire course of a brand.