Rumination 53: Needless Storytellers

I work in communications and believe very strongly in the value and power of narrative. Humans are social animals and whilst we live in an obsessive age of data and measurement, we still make sense of the world through stories that we share with each other.

Every individual, family, culture and organisation has a narrative that underpins it—a history. Increasingly, we see corporations developing and sharing their own stories to become more relatable, change public perceptions of themselves and simply make more money.

Fairly often, these stories work well. Consider the stories of tech and consumer companies like Tesla, Braun and Apple, for example, which (sometimes incidentally) position themselves around a kind of cult figure (i.e. Musk, Rams and Jobs) or some kind of design mission. Uber and Facebook, for all of their faults, end up convincing people that they are in fact revolutionising transport or connecting the world. People buy all kinds of stories.

Many other corporate storytellers, I believe, are less successful in their messaging. Their proposition is so simple and straightforward, their products so clear in their utility, that any kind of attempt at storytelling seems utterly contrived, embarrassing and needless.

I spotted such an example of needless, contrived storytelling at Max Brenner in Sydney.

In case it’s too hard to read, it presents the following as ‘Max’s Story’:

‘More than anything, I’m in love with chocolate. Chocolate is part of my childhood memories, reminding me of Mom and Dad returning home from trips abroad with a suitcase full of chocolates wrapped in crackling colourful paper. It reminds me of Grandma, hiding chocolate candies in a tin box inside a big wooden cupboard. It is part of my youth, and it always reminds me of Anna, my first love.

I’m mesmerised by the history of chocolate, and I’m entranced by the nostalgic stories around it which carry me back to long gone romantic days. Chocolate is passionate, it’s sexy and prestigious, and I always start my morning by eating some milk chocolate with nuts. For more than seven years I worked in small workshops that make chocolate. I heard of rare recipes, and of stories that pass from masters to pupils. I collected old books and utensils that tell the story of chocolate, and I travelled to Central America to get a sense of where the legend of chocolate began.

For more than 10 years now, I’ve been making by own chocolate. I invite you to watch, smell, taste and feel my love story… Max.’

This is some of the most cringeworthy corporate marketing drivel that I have ever read. What’s particularly disappointing to me is that I have no doubt that the founders of Max Brenner do have a passion for chocolate, yet they justify it like this; why else would they have started to produce and sell it?

When Max says that he loves the history and memories that surround chocolate, I believe him. The problem is that he says barely anything of any consequence and doesn’t share any of these interesting details. What are these rare recipes and are they now less rare since he’s probably making them? What are these stories from the chocolate masters? Why on Earth does chocolate specifically remind him of Anna? Did they just eat it together like everyone else or was she in fact made of chocolate? Never has a story referred to so much history in such a short space and actually said so little about it.

Before it closed in Wollongong, the Max Brenner café there displayed only the final sentence and every single time that I saw it, I felt slightly put off by it. I don’t care how much Max loves chocolate; there’s no way that I’m interested in watching, smelling and particularly tasting his love story… not going to happen.

Clearly, Max has some unhealthy views and this is perhaps most evident in his suggestion that milk chocolate with nuts is a decent breakfast. It doesn’t really matter when you eat it but you can bet that it isn’t his only portion for the day.

I do understand the value of this kind of bizarre prose: it’s an attempt to humanise the brand and remind people of the real person behind it. It does add value, in a way. My issue is that it’s just too try-hard. Rather than relying on the quality of the products or selling the feeling of which Max speaks (the one that he has cherished since childhood), he now needs to spell out this feeling to his customers and tell them how to feel about his products.

My argument is simple: a product should tell its brand’s story and create the intended special feeling as it is consumed. A feeling needs to be experienced. Declaring the story in the manner above only serves to draw attention to the sales technique and destroy the feeling that you sought to create in the first place. A hot chocolate should make me feel warm and cosy; you don’t have to tell me to hug the mug.