On Narrative

Some days, a good story is all you need. But to tell a story that sticks, a narrative needs more. Two critical illustrations of this crossed my desk recently, and I thought I’d share them with you.

First, let me call your attention to this spot, which ran during the Super Bowl. (You didn’t see if you live in the U.S.) It’s well worth its two minutes.

 

All right? Get your Kleenex? C’mon, blow your nose. I’ll wait.

This is a far cry from the beer commercials we’ve been subjected to in the past. There are no swiping remarks about how women age; there aren’t any animals being voiced over; there’s no bizarre new bottle or can design. (None of these has anything to do with beer, and none of these can improve on the taste of some of this beer.)

So what makes this spot work?

It’s the emotional core. The best commercials or advertisements tell a good story, but even most of those ignore the need for consumers to connect with the brand on an emotional level. The spot works because it tells a story everyone loves–an underdog story–and it gives viewers what they want: a happy ending.

Perhaps more important, it reminds us of a time when we, too, were underdogs, and when we, too, wanted to be cheered on. (What is that, like, every day?)

Most important, it locks the viewer into a time and place: a scruffy amateur hockey game isn’t the place for a high-falutin’ microbrew; it’s the place for communal cheer; for beer that everyone can afford and enjoy; for idiotic, non-cerebral joy. Budweiser has tapped into the whole point of a cheap beer: feel-good times, with your friends. This is what their brand is, and I wish they’d do more with it.

So that’s one half of narrative–getting to your emotional core. What’s the other half?

Let me tell you another story: Recently, Mr. Gooddirt and I went out to eat at a really amazing restaurant.

We’d never been there before, so why were we so sure this restaurant would be “amazing”? Well, we’re kind of sustainability nuts, so we liked that the restaurant uses only produce from one of its two farms in the northeast. We’ve also eaten at other dining establishments that use the tasting-menu concept, just like this one does, so we had high expectations that went along with the higher price points at this type of restaurant. (Once you add in the wine pairings, which we almost always do, you’re looking at a cool $300 per person.)

So in that way, the restaurant had its narrative lined up straight and true. We knew enough about it to already expect good things. We got there early, for drinks at the front of the house, and were pleased to meet a bartender whose knowledge  was absolutely in line with our expectations. He could tell us about the distilling and aging process of his whiskey, for instance.

photo: Gothamist

I anticipated an exceptional meal, and got one. Every single one of our eight courses was above and beyond what I expected; the flavors were complementary, if, in some places, totally unexpected; the quality of the food was unparalleled, without resorting to gimmick.

So what was missing? Service, service, service. We had one head waiter who depended on four or five rotating sub-waiters (?) to serve and explain the food. That’s appropriate for so many courses; but it quickly becomes an annoyance when none of the sub-waiters understands what they’re serving and has to defer to the head-waiter (who, in turn, looked harried and annoyed) for any questions.

There’s where the narrative broke down: This restaurant prides itself on the quality of its produce and its goods. They should expect that their customers will want to know more about their food and how it’s prepared (at one point, they brought out a wheat ale made from an ancient strain of wheat; and we wanted to know more). Towards that end, they should make sure that every staff person is well educated and cares as much about the stuff they’re selling as the head waiter or proprietor does.

Two final straws broke this camel’s back: First, our bill was wrong, in our favor, and we had to ask them to correct it. Second, when we got outside to our car, we found it there waiting, warm and toasty, with the seat heaters turned on. “Hunh! What a nice touch!” we said. And then we thought to check and see just how long they’d had the car idling for.

People. It’d been idling for AN HOUR AND TEN MINUTES. Complete and total breakdown of sustainability narrative. We lost it. I phoned the restaurant immediately and got an appropriately contrite young lady, and the following day I got a phone call from the operations director  and the outsourced valet service. So that was nice. But who’s going to pay for my $20 worth of gas?

I digress.

Here’s the thing, okay? Story is one thing. Have a good story, and you’re winning half the battle already. But honestly, if you–and I mean you as marketer, brand executive, novelist, copy-writer, restauranteur–don’t have your emotional core built into your narrative, you’re almost bound to build something forgettable.

Likewise, consistency is key. Make sure that everyone in your organization understands your emotional core and the point of your narrative. Make them buy into it. After our experience at the bar, we were sold on the bar–we were making lists of friends who needed to see the place and experience it. It was like that until about a quarter of the way through the dinner, when we realized that only the head waiter knew what he was talking about. And by the time we got to the problem with the valet, we were seriously questioning what we’d previously believed was a real need to get our friends to this restaurant ASAP.

Our restaurant? Great narrative and emotional core; total breakdown of consistency. Budweiser? Great narrative in this instance; game-changing recognition of emotional core that I wish would happen more frequently with them.

The lesson? Find your story. Be true to it. Be consistent. You can’t go wrong that way.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

7 Responses to On Narrative
  1. Stefon says:

    Good post, Yish. I like the way you tied together the ideas with vivid examples. That Budweiser commercial was brilliant. It could be analyzed on its own for short story structure and pacing.

  2. Yi Shun Lai says:

    Thanks for reading, mister! Yes, the Budweiser spot is the best I’ve seen in a really, really long time. Pass it around. It deserves to be seen.

  3. Grier says:

    Well said. A good narrative needs an emotional core that’s consistent from the inside out–integrity. I agree with Stefon about the commerical’s value in crafting a narrative arc. Starting with a confession (we lied) is a natural tension builder. If only [the restaurant] had started with a confession…

  4. N2 says:

    Hi Yeesh!
    You did really well with the through line of the narrative in this post — sharp, clean writing with great illustrative examples =o). Plus the “voice” in this piece is really strong, but then that is one of your strong points. The Bud commercial was a tear jerker, but in a good way. x0 N2

  5. Yi Shun Lai says:

    @Grier–thanks so much for reading! Yeah, I’m tempted to dissect the Bud spot and see what comes of it. As for [unnamed cranky-inducing restaurant]…@Nancy–thank you!!

  6. […] his article was contributed by guest blogger, Yi Shun Lai: […]

  7. Sue Anne Linde says:

    Hey, love your blog! Looking forward to meeting again soon…:)

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