the joy luck club method to brand strategy

I’ve finally gotten around to reading “The Opposite of Fate:  A Book of Musings,” a book released quite awhile ago by Amy Tan, the author of best-selling novels like The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wifeopposite of fateLike all of her other writings, this book has been a delight to devour.  Not only has it entertained me and helped me understand Tan (and therefore myself), but also it has inspired me.  Tan includes many insights about story-telling and communication in general which I believe can be applied to developing brand strategies.

One of such “musings” is “Five Writing Tips” — an edited version of a speech given as a commencement address at Simmons College, in Boston, in 2003.  Although her remarks were intended to inspire a new generation to write and think differently, I found they also provide helpful guidelines for creating brand strategy.

Tan herself explains broader application of the principles she relayed:   “So what can I as a writer tell you today that might be useful as you leave this period of your life and enter the next?…Five writing tips, which you may find useful in areas other than writing, perhaps even in thinking about life, how you might conduct it in a manner that is interesting and worthwhile.” (emphasis mine)

So with many thanks to Tan, here are excerpts from her speech and my interpretation of how they relate to developing brand strategy (in case you’re wondering what I mean by “brand strategy,” please refer to this post):

1.     Avoid clichés.

Tan:  They are all around us, and they are anathema to original thought.  Take these, all having to do with an acceptance of fate:  ”That’s how it was meant to be.” Or “That’s our lot in life.”…And how about: “Some things were just meant to be,” and “If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” a cliché brilliantly parodied by Gilda Radner.

When you are told, “It was meant to be,” ask, “Who meant it?  What does it really mean?”…When you are told, “Shit happens,” remember that plenty of other things happen as well, such as generosity, forgiveness, ambiguity, and uncertainty…If you hear overused expressions on the news, stop to think whether they are really meaningful.

The spectrum of meaning is endless and fascinating and filled with humanity.

Me:  Brand strategy should be authentic and meaningful. The job of a brand strategist is to uncover the authentic essence of what is being sold and to articulate that in a way that ignites with provocative insight the customer experience and communication development processes.

Brand strategies which rely on over-used phrases like “Brand X is the preferred choice of…,” or “Brand Y is the most innovative…”, are usually the product of a lazy strategist.  It signals he or she hasn’t done the hard work of digging for what the true meaning of the brand is and/or figuring out how to bring it to life.

Cliché-like tendencies are particularly common when describing brand attributes or benefits.  Relying on industry standards or company conventions can blind people to the real roles certain attributes or benefits play, or the way they have evolved over time, or how they might be framed, shaped, or exploited.  A strategist should always be questioning, challenging, pushing the bounds of conventional thought.

2.    Avoid generalizations.

Tan:  As a fiction writer, I distrust absolute truths, homilies, bromides, sound bites, and also shorthand advice of the sort I’m giving.  I like specifics…Intelligent readers will demand that you not…resolve situations with “Good always conquers evil,” “Might is always right,” and so forth.

And while such resolutions are common in murder mysteries and action stories, they are feeble in literary fiction, which is supposed to reflect subtle truths about the world. Better to be subtle rather than overbearing, subversive rather than didactic.

Me:  Brand strategy should be specific and nuanced. It should include a focused and precise articulation of what the brand stands for and the specific position the brand occupies in the competitive landscape.

It should also detail rich insights about the target customer(s).  Referring to “soccer moms” or “Gen Y” does little to help the strategy’s users understand the real needs and drivers of the target.

Again, this requires diligence and discipline.  But uncovering and capturing the “subtle truths” is often what makes the difference between a brand which is merely one of many options and one which truly resonates.

3.    Find your own voice

Tan:  …Your own voice is one that seeks a personal truth, one that only you can obtain.  That truth comes from your own experiences, your own observations, and when you find it, if it really is true and specific to you, you may be surprised that others find it to be true as well.  In searching for your own voice, be aware of the difference between emulation and imitation, inspiration and intimidation.

Me:  Brand strategy should capture the unique voice of the brand. The strategy shouldn’t simply explain the brand’s attributes and competitive positioning – it should also reveal the brand personality and character.  For example, when I worked on Sony Electronics, we had crafted the core belief of the brand:  We create technologies that inspire people to dream and find joy. The unique personality and character attributes we codified included:  young at heart; optimistic; believe anything is possible.

Also in some ways, the brand strategy is a story.  The brand is the hero, competitors or customer needs are the villains, and the dimensions outlined in the strategy create the story arc.  As such, the narrative should convey the brand voice.

4.    Show compassion

Tan:…Practice imagining yourself living the life of someone whose situation differs entirely from yours – living in another country, having another religion – and the more deeply you can do so, the more you can become that character as you write.  You cannot help being compassionate.

Me:  Brand strategy should reveal true empathy for the target customers. The more intimately you can relate to the way they think, feel, live, shop, the more capable you are of creating a strategy which will fuels a strong brand:customer connection.  It’s not enough to be able to describe customers – the goal should be to can see through their eyes the world, other people, the competitive landscape, and your brand and product.

Empathic and ethnographic research methods are great tools to achieve this level of intimacy. But above all, as Amy Tan explains, “Imagination brings you close to compassion.

5.    Ask the important questions.

Tan:  What makes a story worthwhile is the question or questions it poses…We need personal answers, all the stories, as many as we can get.  But to find them, you first must ask the questions.  You need to ask yourself:  What is important?  What is at stake?  In knowing what questions you are asking, you also know your individual voice, your own morality.

Me:  Brand strategy should raise and answer the important questions. Developing a brand strategy isn’t about putting words on a page – it’s a process of discovery and enlightment about what matters.

Brand strategists should ask:  Why does this brand exist?  What is important about the target customer?  Why does this category matter?  What if this product didn’t exist, what would be lost?  And then the strategy should show how the brand answers these questions in a way no other brand can.

Tan concludes her writing tips by explaining their importance.  She says, “Your thoughts, your evolving answers to the important questions, are what will give you interesting lives, make you interesting people capable of changing the world.” (emphasis mine)

I believe the same can be said about a well-crafted brand strategy.  Developing and executing a deeply insightful brand strategy is what will make yours an interesting brand capable of changing the world.

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