It has been said, and by wiser men than me, that there are only a limited number of plots in the entire history of literature and that any book you might read is just a subtle variation or combination of these. For those who are interested, Foster and Harris say there are only three, Georges Polti lists 36 (although by the time you’ve read them all you feel as if you’re already halfway through the first chapter of a James Joyce novel), but I remember being taught only seven, which are:
1. person vs nature
2. person vs other person
3. person vs the environment
4. person vs machines/ technology
5. person vs the supernatural
6. person vs self
7. person vs god/ religion
Initially this may seem a little hard to accept, but if you think back over the books you have read, all of which seemed totally different at the time, they are in fact very similar: boy meets girl, boy loses girl (careless) boy does/ does not get girl back; or man gets wronged, man takes revenge, man meets pretty lady/ other man on the way.
The trouble with this is you tend to know how a lot of books are going to end. Let’s be honest, who was in any real doubt that Frodo was going to destroy the ring, or that Mr Darcy and Miss Bennet were going to ‘get it on’, or that all classic Russian novels end on a depressing note. According to Roland Barthes this isn’t a problem because as humans we are capable of ‘suspending our disbelief’ and following a plot without considering that it is all just made up. Of course, there are other novels that make things a little more difficult, you never really know what is going to happen to Winston Smith in 1984 and Gatsby, great or otherwise, might or might not have received his comeuppance, but these examples are few and far between.
Brands are the same, in my view there are a very limited number of discernible brands in any given sector. I’ve always struggled to tell the difference between Sainsbury’s and Safeway’s brand positioning or those of Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. I know what they say in their ads, but when I buy bread it is hard to know what balance of service, quality, price and so on I am getting in each slice.
Reading an organisation’s corporate literature in an attempt to uncover some unique trading characteristic is of no benefit either – mission statements are usually full of the same meaningless pleasantries about ‘unbeatable value’ and ‘best quality’. We used to play a game at work, every time anyone came across a mission statement you stuck it on the wall and everyone had to guess which company wrote it, by and large an impossible game as most of them are completely anonymous (although you do come across the odd gem, ‘an innovative brand which offers easily understood, creative, authentic solutions in a contemporary, witty, informal style for demanding, curious, positive people on the move’, answers on a postcard please).
Mission statements are generally bunkum as they tend to focus on the ‘plot’ of an organisation, the skeleton rather than the flesh and muscle. If you focus on the plot then there are, as in literature, lmited options available, maybe as few as four:
In my opinion, what makes literature great is style not plot – sure there are many books with great plots, but it is how these are revealed to us that makes them great, the depth of the characters, use of language, suspense, tempo and so on. In fact, the worst thing you can do in literature is make the plot transparent. It’s the same with brands, they shouldn’t give up their secrets immediately, it is up to the consumer to tease them out. Brands with transparent personalities form only transient and fleeting relationships with their customers.
A brand with style, however, one that is ever changing and developing, with hidden depths and unexpected twists and turns, one that rewards the customer every time they interact with it but occasionally surprises them, one that, while it knows its core mission, is not afraid to deviate to create a little interest and excitement, has the potential to not only form deep and meaningful relationships with customers, but also keep us guessing to the end.
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