We can’t strategize our way into people’s hearts

I love great branding. The kind of branding that connects with me on an emotional level. You’ve experienced it. It’s the kind of stuff that causes people to willingly wear a company's logo on their shirt (and I’m not just talking about the logos of sportswear companies.) It emerges in storytelling that gives you goosebumps as you watch or read it.

Naturally, I love great storytelling. Especially when the authors give us a way to think about something in a way that we had not imagined. But I’ve also learned throughout my career that just having a talented storyteller is not enough. Early on, I thought it didn’t matter. I would be handed an assignment where nothing special had been identified about the brand. I thought I could still make it work by finding a clever story.


And that’s what I delivered. A clever story. An interesting premise that would capture attention. But every time, these clever stories just wouldn’t stick with people. They dissolved away. Like cotton candy. Because there was nothing beyond the clever story. There was no depth.

Searching for a formula

My solution to the clever-but-lacking-story was to dive into strategy. I figured that if a storyteller could become really good at strategy, he could unlock the secret to those great stories. I pushed myself to become that person who could lay out a differentiating strategic framework and then apply my storytelling skills to bring that strategy to life in an unexpected and compelling way.

The stories got better. But they still were not consistently the goosebumps-inducing gems that made me want to get into this business in the first place.

Something was still missing.

Was it just the whims of fate?

As I looked back over my career, I wanted to believe there was some overlooked clue to what made great brand stories great. I separated out those stories that reached that rarified level. What made those efforts so successful? Was it just random good fortune? There were lots of differences between the projects. But they didn’t seem to have any secret ingredient that united all of them.

This was frustrating. I didn’t want to admit that sometimes things just work out. That telling great stories was determined by the whims of fate. I had to be missing something.

My problem was that I was looking in the wrong place. I was examining the way that features were combined. Studying how benefits were built. These were important things to understand. But they were also keeping me from really understanding what made for great stories.

Sometimes getting old is a good thing

Maybe it was because I was getting older. Maybe it was because I had seen a lot of years of this business I’m in – and I was becoming jaded. Whatever the reason, I really started thinking about what I was doing.

I thought, “Is this how I wanted to spend my time (because time becomes more precious as you get older)?" Something started to occur to me. It wasn’t just about telling great stories. It was about telling stories that could make a difference for someone. Stories that brashly believed that they could help an individual. Or a community. Or even the world.

I got really excited about that idea. And then immediately thought it was all just too presumptuous.

I worried that people would laugh me out of the room if I said I wanted to tell stories that helped change lives. I put it aside. But it would not stay there.

I started thinking a lot about us as humans and how important stories are to everything from preserving history to teaching morals to inspiring change. That last one tugged at me. Change starts as a story.

This is when I started to understand what made great stories great. It was purpose.

When a brand or an organization embraced a larger purpose, magical things happened. I went back to that collection of stories that I had compiled. And sure enough, it became evident. The common denominator was purpose.

A purpose evangelist

Here I am today. I still live for telling great stories. But now I know that the story alone is not enough. Not enough for the brand or organization. And not enough for me.

I know there is something that we must discover first. We must uncover, unlock, and unleash that thing that ignites passions. That thing that brings the goosebumps.

My purpose is to mount a crusade. To become an evangelist of purpose. Yes it’s to tell great stories. But it never was just about the storytelling. It is what the storytelling could lead to.

Now before we even talk about what the brand should say or do, we go through a purpose discovery. And amazing things emerge. Things that ignite passions. Ignite ideas. Things that help a brand or an organization understand that it can make a real difference in lives.

That makes for one helluva story.


Dan Salva is a co-founder of Will & Grail, with more than three decades of experience in brand marketing and developing and implementing go-to-market strategies. He can be reached at dsalva@willgrail.com.

ProcessDan Salva