“Never Apologize” and Other Tips to Protect Your Narrative
Building brand or corporate narratives is not an easy task. It can take years of painstaking research and consistent building and application. It may be the fruit of luck or inspiration that may never hit again. You’ve done the marketing campaigns, the communications strategies, maybe even the office designs. And after all that, you will want to protect your narratives, especially now that the wider public is more aware of narrative-building. Social media and “cancel culture” have ruined many a narrative and cost brands and companies real money. If you have a brand or corporate narrative or identity you want to protect, here are some things you can and cannot do.
Tell only one truth: yours. In a postmodern world where truth is what one makes of it, this is the foundation of narrative-building and maintenance. Stick to your truth, and the audience you’ve built around it will stand by you. This narrative bubble can weather outside attack. When Peloton, an exercise and lifestyle brand, came under fire for a Christmas 2019 ad involving a husband gifting his wife an exercise bike, the company refused to buckle under pressure and maintained that their core audience would understand the intent and meaning of their ad. Not only did they maintain their market, their stock soared due to renewed popularity among people under quarantine.
Never go outside your experience. Narratives are stronger the closer they hew to how the wider audience perceives reality. The strongest brand or corporate narratives are built upon brand or corporate experiences. Going outside that experience exposes your narrative to easy attack. We can believe that a tech company like Apple is created by and for the “crazy ones”, for example. ESPN as a “woke” political pundit? Not so much.
Where possible, use humor. Humor has many virtues. It can create an audience out of those who share your sense of humor. It can make tough messaging easier to swallow. And, it provides plausible deniability in defense against controversy. Jon Stewart constantly used his “clown nose” as a shield from being called out for opinions he’d lay out in his show. The wit and sarcasm of the Wendy’s Twitter account won the brand some credibility with a younger market, which makes the brand harder to take on in the way Burger King is doing with McDonald’s.
Do not alienate your audience. Any narrative requires a willing audience, both as life blood and as an immune system. While this may sound like common sense, brands and companies will often risk their core audience in their pursuit of growth in new markets. Alienating your audience weakens the perception of your narrative to potential growth sectors, as well as forcing that narrative to operate from a position of reduced trust. And you get all of this while losing a core audience you may never get back. Gillette discovered this when they tried to grow a foothold among a younger audience by creating a campaign that was perceived as offensive and insulting by their core audience. Reconstructing the shattered “the best a man can get” narrative to gain that audience back would be extremely difficult.
Never apologize. An apology is the ultimate death of a narrative, for it is the explicit concession of the narrative-builder that the narrative is wrong. Being unapologetic for who you are can protect you from losing your core audience. When videogame development company CD Projekt Red announced that its latest game Cyberpunk 2077 would refrain from activist positioning that often characterized the genre it was entering in favor of the sort of moral complexity that underlay the storytelling that made its “Witcher” series so well received, it was reaffirming a narrative about itself that it has built up and shared with the core audience that gave them their status as a premier games developer. In defying the loud genre critics trying to take control of its narrative, CD Projekt Red helped turn its upcoming game into a pre-selling success with an audience still highly engaged with the narrative they are presenting.