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Every story needs a bad guy

Stories have been shared in every culture throughout the history of civilization as a means of entertainment, education and cultural preservation. Sometimes it’s all three. Stories have been carved, painted, printed or inked onto wood, bone, pottery, clay, stone, leaves, skins, bark, cloth, paper, silk, and other textiles. Most recently, stories are recorded on film and stored digitally.

Stories can be inspiring, hurtful, scary, sad, joyful, encouraging, and bewildering. Some stories are true, based on fact or completely made up. It’s important to note that just because it’s written down or said out loud, that doesn’t mean you should believe it.

Stories are narratives of our lives, they aren’t just written in books. Watch the news, those are stories. Read the About Us section on a website, that’s a story (or at least it should be). Watch people out for dinner sharing stories from their day.

Brands like Nike, Free The Children, TOMS Shoes, Charity Water, GoPro, Patagonia, Four Seasons and threadless.com tell stories. Brand storytelling is nothing new, but it’s harder than ever for consumers to trust that that brands are being authentic.

Throughout my life I’ve always been puzzled by how a person can be admired and loved by one group of people and detested by another. How is it that one person can be so polarizing and seen in two completely different ways? How is it that a brand can spark enthusiasm in one consumer and revolt in another? A few years back we had a reunion for one of my companies, there were a few people who did not come and made it very clear it was because of me, yet others thought of me as the best boss they had ever had. How could I have made such a varying impact on two different people who sat side by side? Why is it that a brand like Amazon or Facebook is both loved and detested? I’ve now realized that there’s a simple answer to this puzzle. Storytelling creates a narrative that speaks to some consumers, but not others.

The crucial elements of a story include plot, characters, a point of view, and of course, a bad guy. The way you view these elements depends on so many things: where you live, your gender, age, socioeconomic background, your job, whether or not you have kids, and so on. So while some may characterize a person or a brand in one light, another person can easily do the opposite based on the stories they have been told or have subconsciously created inside their mind.

Often, when we relate to another person or brand we do so from only one perspective formed out of our sense of self; who we are, what we need, and what we want. This is juxtaposed with who we imagine that other person or brand to be, what we envision them being able to do for us. This invariably causes problems and it’s usually how the bad guy is created. The bad guy is often a creation of our mind and perspective.

Sometimes you will be the bad guy in someone else’s story. Whether you want to dispute that characterization or buy into it, it’s your choice. But usually, the best thing to do is ignore that story because it’s not yours. Simple concept, not always easy to execute.

That’s not to say you might not need to change a behaviour or that your brand might not need to improve service levels but your change has to be for you, because you believe in it, because you want to be better for you. You’ll never be everything to everyone. So it’s not good to try and do that. You’ll always have ambassadors and you’ll always have enemies. It’s better to try to turn regular customers into ambassadors rather than enemies into regular customers. It’s the path of least resistance. Spend time with people who want to support you.

You can control the character in your story, but you can’t control your characterization in other people’s stories because even after you change a behaviour or a way of being people will not characterize you differently. Certainly not in the short term.

Years of behaviour, whether your personality or your brand’s service levels have created deep impressions in your customers, friends and employees. Customers will eventually forgive but they rarely forget. Friends may forget what you said, but they don’t forget how they felt. People’s perceptions and how they have positioned you in their story are well ingrained, they won’t ever disappear quickly. And any slip up on your part will send previously untrusting customers beyond their once held dislike for you, even if you somehow managed to win them over. Forgive yourself, keep trying, keep working at it and only compete against the old you.