brand story

Brand Story : My Love-Hate with “Story”

It took talking with two self-proclaimed “story marketers,” a bombardment of “brand story” during the superbowl, and a self-proclaimed (though unordained) “pastor” who said, “It’s all about stories, man, just stories,” for me to realize how fully I had fallen out of love with the word “story.” It also helped that three different large organizations literally tried to hire me as a resident storyteller to use story marketing for whatever they were selling — good, paying jobs I happily turned down for ethical reasons (not the least of which is my passionate belief that such organizations should commission artists to make whatever artists want to make, not the other way around). That might seem odd to anyone who knows my profession: author, narrator, screenwriter, multi-sensory tale teller, artist equipper and empowerer and commissioner. But I have tried to gut the word from my vocab, at least as a default. I avoid using the word outside of my fantasy universe’s magic system (storyweavers) and defer towards mythopoeia, bullshitter (per Southern Illinois break rooms), fictioneer, tale spinner, and whatever else I can do to manage in the meantime, like the divorcée in the middle of a name change.

I haven’t fallen out of love with narrative, tales, myths, legends, folklore, fiction, memoir, journalism, or biography. Just stories — or at least the culture’s abuse of the word “story.” It started with the whole trend in trying to push past the nosebleed altitude advertisers have created for themselves by over saturating our culture with the urge to buy shit we don’t need. They have corrupted every good phrase we have, turning our treasured “be the change you want to see in the world” into “be the person buying printer cartridges you want to see in the world.” They have co-opted our activism trying to show how we can march as long as when we stop for a break, we all buy Coke. Heaven forbid we protest Coke itself for their many crimes such as the time they shot and killed an unarmed nun and assassinated union leaders.

The revel reached fever pitch in recent years as companies tried to do something — anything — to get you to feel an emotional response associated with their brand story. This started with the manic laughter engendered by the Bud Light commercials of yesterdecade and culminated in the tech industry’s attempt to associate grief with Google, awe with Apple, and fear (and therefore collective outrage and the feigned comfort of the mob) with Facebook. The result is that we have begun to distrust even our emotional responses because we don’t know if we’re feeling something true or if that anger you feel is the Dark Side trying to sell you ghetto-rigged lightsabers.

I suppose there’s an upside to this.

The upside is that our stories may at long last move beyond psychology, trauma, and the idea of inner turmoil. We might actually evolve beyond the problem novel. And into the realm of actual ideas explaining all of life — the realm of myth and poetry from whence fiction sprang. We might return to our roots. And the best way to explain this would, of course, be a lengthy quote from Papa GK:

The Causists of the Catholic schools said all that can really be said for the problem plays and problem novels of our own time, two hundred years before they were written. They said that there really are problems of moral conduct; but they had the misfortune to say it two hundred years too soon. In a time of tub-thumping fanaticism and free and easy vituperation, they merely got themselves called liars and shufflers for being psychologists before psychology was the fashion.

[And again Catholics have beaten the world to the punch by moving beyond psychology, beyond problem novels and plays, into writing stories with purpose.]

…A Catholic putting Catholicism into a novel, or a song, or a sonnet, or anything else, is not being a propagandist; he is simply being a Catholic. Everybody understands this about every other enthusiasm in the world. When we say that a poet’s landscape and atmosphere are full of the spirit of England, we do not mean that he is necessarily conducting an Anti-German propaganda during the Great War. We mean that if he is really an English poet, his poetry cannot be anything but English. When we say that songs are full of the spirit of the sea, we do not mean that the poet is recruiting for the Navy or even trying to collect men for the merchant service. We mean that he loves the sea; and for that would like other people to love it. …When my work is not in the least propagandist, it will probably be full of the implications of my own religion; because that is what is meant by having a religion or a worldview of any kind, for that matter. So the jokes of a Buddhist, if there were any, would be Buddhist jokes. So the love-songs of a Calvinistic Methodist, should they burst from him, would be Calvinistic Methodist love-songs. Catholics have produced more jokes and love-songs than Buddhists and Calvinists. That is because, saving their holy presence, Calvinists and Buddhists have not got so large or human a religion. But anything they did express would be steeped in any convictions that they do hold; and that is a piece of common sense which would seem to be quite self-evident; yet I foresee avast amount of difficulty with it in the one isolated case of the Catholic Church.

…The world of today does not know that all the novels and newspapers that it reads or writes are in fact full of certain assumptions, that are just as dogmatic as dogmas. With some of those assumptions I agree, such as the ideal of human equality implied in all romantic stories from Cinderella to Oliver Twist, that the rich are insulting God in despising poverty. With some of them I totally disagree; as in the curious idea of human inequality, which is permitted about races though not about classes… The point about these assumptions, true or false, is that they are left as being assumed, or alluded to, or taken naturally as they come. They are not felt as being preached; and therefore they are not called propaganda. Yet they have in practice all the double character of propaganda; they involve certain views with which everyone does not agree; and they do in fact spread those views by means of fiction and popular literature. What they do not do is to state them clearly so that they can be criticized. I do not blame the writers for putting their philosophy into their stories. I should not blame them even if they used their stories to spread their philosophy. But they do blame us; and the real reason is that they have not yet realized that we have a philosophy at all.

The truth is, I think, that they are caught in a sort of argument in a circle. Their vague philosophy says to them: “All religion is dead; Roman Catholicism is a religious sect which must be particularly dead, since it consists of mere external acts and attitudes, crossings, genuflections and the rest; which these sectarians suppose they have to perform in a particular place at a particular time.”

Then some Catholic will write a romance or a tragedy about the love of a man and woman, or the rivalry of two men, or any other general human affair; and they will be astonished to find that he cannot preach these things in an “unsectarian” way. They say, “Why does he drag in his religion?”

They mean, “Why does he drag in his religion, which consists entirely of crossings, genuflections and external acts belonging to a particular place and time, when he is talking about eh wide world and the beauty of woman and the anger and ambition of man?”

In other words, they say, “when we have assumed that his creed is a small and dead thing, how dare he apply it as a universal and living thing? It has no right to be so broad, when we all know it is so narrow.”

I conclude therefore that, while Mr. Braybrooke was quite right in suggesting that a novelist with a creed ought not to be ashamed of having a cause, the more immediate necessity is to find some way of popularizing our whole philosophy of life, by putting it more plainly than it can be put in the symbol of a story. The difficulty with a story is in its very simplicity and especially in its swiftness. Men do things and do not define or defend them… What is wanted is a popular outline of the way in which ordinary affairs are affected by our view of life, and how it is also a view of death, a view of sex, and a view of social decencies, and so on. When people understood the light that shines for us upon all these facts, they would no longer be surprised to find it shining in our fictions.

Combined with an assumption that I’ve said here and elsewhere in years gone by, you’ll begin to understand my meaning. The assumption — in response to the story marketers of the world — is that if the capitalist wins, it’s not that there’s going to be no good art and no good stories, it’s that there won’t be art or stories that aren’t simultaneously advertisement and that’s a considerable step lower. When we make art and tell stories and craft culture not for a king or a pope or our creed and cause, but rather to simply further enrich some random businessman, we end up with a world of art and culture subservient to commodities and trinkets, stocks and bonds. And that’s an awful world. It’s an awful world when the best ends of men are completely gutted in order to make sure nothing gets in the way of more money. It’s an awful world when the best portraits painted are green portraits meant for the new faces of the very dollar bills that commissioned them. It’s an awful world when man may not make art in his image as God made man in his, but must rather redirect all his efforts in making art in the image of the Pillsbury Doughboy and Colonel Sanders over against Mr. Clean and Ronald McDonald. To parse apart socially acceptable types of art — for instance, art that pays a lot verses art that pays a little or again art that gets you into corporate parties verses art that protests corporate parties — is to make money (and possibly fame) the only standard by which we judge good art, good stories.

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An easier way to show this is through the manual arts and that most proletarian manual art: distillation and fermentation — the craft of whiskey and beer.

To parse apart socially acceptable types of alcohol and socially unacceptable types of alcohol, to say three glasses of wine is good and one glass of whiskey is evil, when chemically they are identical with respect to the liver, is precisely to create a class system within even the liquor store, the receiving line at a wedding, and the shipping lanes in the New Jersey port. A poor man can afford a small bottle of bourbon. He cannot afford three bottles of chianti. And that’s the point. You may treat booze as worthy of prohibition or worthy of indulgence, you may treat it as something to be tempered and claim everything must be taken in moderation including moderation, you may treat it however you like as long as you treat all alcohol as equal on principle and purpose.

But to treat one fermentation process as nobler than another is precisely to oppress your neighbor for the sake of commerce — to favor California and France and Italy over Kentucky and Tennessee and Scotland. That’s exactly what that is: telling stories of noble sommeliers to contrast against ignoble cicerones. For all the prejudice story marketing implies, you might as well be telling stories of noble white folk to contrast ignoble black folk or of WASPs against white trash. To ignore moral codes is to ignore meaning. And to ignore meaning is to ignore the whole point of art in the first place. Imagination is, as Lewis said, the organ of meaning.

Advertisement, in short, strips art and the imagination and story of meaning by replacing meaning with money. If all a work of art means is money, then it’s no longer art but a derivative.

But the advertisers have given us a great boon. They’ve jumped the shark, you see.

In recent years as they’ve started to play with emotion and story, they’ve tapped into the end of the age of the problem novel — the novel that had been invented long before Freud and had its roots in a philosophy. And now as men have with every other era of ads — as they’ve grown tired of billboards and then tired of lengthy magazine print and tired of commercials and tired of Adsense and tired of Facebook feeds and tired of being sold everything at every turn — they will grow tired of art meaning nothing but money. Which means they will grow tired of that brand of art, if it can be called art.

And therefore storytellers like myself will have no choice but to write stories that actually mean something. That have a point. That have a purpose. That mean first things. That show our cards and tell the truth about our deepest philosophies.

And like the Areopagus of old, those truths will collide with the benefit of free speech and Truth will rise to the surface once more in fiction. Perhaps at the end of all of it, stories will return to even that word’s roots in giving us meaning out of life: their roots in that beautiful word history.

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So no, I won’t be taking Donald Miller’s storybrand or brand story or whatever he’s selling seminars any time soon (which seems pretty ironic considering he’s the author of the line The greatest lie I ever told was that life was a story about me). I won’t be hiring a story marketer to push my work — or any of the work of my clients — out into the world. I will simply tell the stories I was born to tell.

And most of them won’t be about me. Or anyone in my family.


Truth shall prevail though men abhor
its resonating light
And wage exterminating war
And put all foes to flight
Though trampled under foot of man
truth from the dust shall spring
And by the press, the lip, the pen
in tones of thunder ring:
(Lest ere ye look through Error’s mist
Truth strike ye to the ground).

If you’re going to heat up anything, don’t make it a firebrand, a cattle brand, or a story brand.

If you’re going to fire something, let it be pitchforks and torches.

Die for a creed.

Don’t die for a Coke.

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