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.

Rumination 52: Overstated Minimalism

Back in March, I wrote a piece called Je suis KmÀrt in which I discussed some of the annoying, meaningless drivel that is printed on cheap clothing for marketing purposes. My essential point was as follows:

‘What I find concerning is the way that people mindlessly scoop up such items, using them to project false styles and realities that match their constructed realities on Instagram. In people’s relentless efforts to stand out, they end up all heading to the same retail chains.’

I do spend some time ruminating about the identities that people project online. Shopping trips often spark this thought, as I’m surrounded by consumerist nonsense that undoubtedly ends up in selfies.

Well, here’s yet another example: during a recent visit to Cotton On, I spotted this bag.

Whilst not in French or Spanish this time, this bag includes the printed label: ‘Minimalist New York’. So, what’s my issue with this? My issue is that by printing the very word ‘minimalist’ on a supposedly minimalist bag, the designers have ironically created a product that is less minimalist than it could have been if it hadn’t included any words in the first place.

I would argue that including only the city name or featuring no text at all would have been a better branding exercise than including the word ‘Minimalist’. Upon seeing someone carrying the bag without any text, people may even ask, ‘That’s a nice bag? Where did you get it? Who made it?’, to which the owner could answer that the brand is so minimalist that the company doesn’t even include its name on the products. That sounds more interesting and genuine to me.

If you wish to display a minimalist aesthetic, just be a minimalist without needlessly overstating it. Think about it: if someone likes to wear purple shirts, that person will just wear a purple shirt on any given day. He or she won’t go to a clothing shop asking for a purple shirt that says ‘purple’ on the front of it, just so that people understand the inner philosophy of their colour choice.

Don’t fall for this. Be who you want to be without feeling the need to overstate it with a printed label.

Rumination 51: Fabricating/Inventing

I recently finished reading Beyond Good and Evil by Friederich Nietzsche, translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Frankly, it was one of the most profound, challenging and at times abstract texts that I’ve ever read.

Throughout the book, I came across numerous sections that seemed almost prophetic (aside from some of the more outdated and even offensive sections about women). On the more positive side, Nietszche seemed to have an unbelievable ability to see into human nature, balancing arguments of morality, history, nationalism, science, knowledge, prejudice and nobility. What stood out to me particularly, however, was the way that he argued how people view the world (and thinking about it today, how little has really changed). Section 192 (p. 115) in the chapter On the Natural History of Morals is the best example of this:

‘ As a little as a reader today reads all the individual words (not to speak of the syllables) of a page — he rather takes about five words in twenty haphazardly and ‘conjectures’ their probable meaning — just as little do we see a tree exactly and entire with regard to its leaves, branches, colour, shape; it is so much easier for us to put together an approximation of a tree. Even when we are involved in the most uncommon experiences we still do the same thing: we fabricate the greater part of the experience and can hardly be compelled not to contemplate some event as its ‘inventor’. All this means: we are from the very heart and from the very first — accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.’

Nietzsche published his book in 1886, prior to all the brilliant scientific, technological and medical advancements of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Today, I believe that many people still take for granted a range of technologies that enable us to see, appreciate and interact with the world in all of its complexity, be they satellites, smartphones or medical imaging equipment that takes things down to the most microscopic level. With all the knowledge that we have accumulated and that is now instantly accessible on the Web, people still view the world in a way that is general, narrow and even prejudiced.

Going back to what Nietzsche says about the words and syllables on a page: think about the way that you read online and perhaps are even reading this right now. People now skim over and scan through texts hurriedly, searching for keywords and not always paying the finest attention to each word on the page. We are always in a rush, constantly aware of the next possible piece of content in a feed or upcoming video recommendation. In every text, word choice is deliberate and we don’t always read texts in a way that is critical, appreciative or respectful of the author.

In the excerpt above, I paid particular attention to the words ‘fabricate’ and ‘inventor’. I would argue that many people use our powerful communication tools—smartphones and the Web, specifically— as tools of their own fabrication and invention. Social media, whilst possessing the enormous potential for good and global connection, have become the ultimate channels for lying and misrepresentation. Consider filters on Snapchat, stories on Instagram, sensationalist threads and ‘fake news’ on Twitter and controversial live streams on Facebook: all of these media now offer influencers and casual users alike a way to reduce the complexity and beauty of the world to marketable bits and fabricate desired identities, world-views and narratives.

Beyond the simple, typical use of things like filtered photography to present a preferred image of yourself online, we now see people misusing technology to the point that it distorts their own view of lived events. This ranges from viewing an entire live concert through one’s screen whilst video-recording (affecting appreciation and memory of the event), all the way to live-streaming a massacre on Facebook. What should be tools for connecting people end up becoming either banal habits or ways of publicly destroying people’s lives. As Nietzsche put it, we see ourselves as the inventors of events.

In a world that now requires a relentless stream of new content, producers and viewers now risk a distorted view of the world, opting for ‘an approximation of a tree’ rather than appreciating its entire composition. These mainstream, digital tools, as Nietzsche put so well, have now shown that really ‘one is much more of an artist than one knows’, fabricating and inventing narratives as one sees fit. We are now artists of our own existence. We use new technologies to exacerbate and perpetuate our worst behaviours.

My question is: how many people today are aware that they are fabricating their own world and how many have lost sight of it? The next time that you go to post something online or quickly skim through an article, stop to think about how your production and consumption habits are affecting your own (and others’) view of the entire tree. Look beyond the approximation.