Ken Burns Explains Transcendent Stories

Ken Burns knows how to tell a story. The award-winning filmmaker of the epic Civil  War and Baseball series on PBS tell broad, sweeping stories about history with a mix of facts, perspective, anecdote and testimony.

Burns is hyperaware of his craft. And he’s also hyperaware of his signature style and the strengths and weaknesses of the format. And he freely admits that storytelling is a craft of manipulation, which undeniable of any story.

Every story—fiction, film, novel, editorial, news—is manipulation just for the simple fact that someone has to decide what to include and what to exclude. Beyond that, there’s the level of detail, the order of information, and the emotional elements that make a story come alive. A number of little white lies, cleverly ordered, can add up to a great story.

Burns has a new documentary, The Dust Bowl, debuting on PBS in November. (Here’s a quick USA Today preview and a trailer.) In a fascinating documentary about the documentarian on The Atlantic website, Burns discusses his craft. In this short film, Burns emphasizes a number of story elements that create lasting emotional resonance with audiences.

For one, Mr. Burns reminds us that there are many different kinds of truth. There are factual truths, emotional truths, truths about history, and truths about human nature.

He also cleverly postulates that 1 + 1 = 3. That two pieces of information put together add up to a larger context of truth, whether emotional or merely cognitive. It’s not a tired cliché because it’s universal: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Today’s brands have a nearly boundless opportunity to tell more compelling, authentic stories, and reveal deep truths about the things that matter most to consumers. But these truths are bound by certain fundamentals that make them resonate. For instance, Burns’ urges: “Do it sincerely.”

Sincerity may be more valued today than ever. Consumers don’t trust brands, packages, or advertising any more than they are tricked into trusting them. One way to convey sincerity is to include detail that does not convey the whitewashed singularity of purpose that many brands hide behind. Burns says that he tries to reveal flaws in the “good guys” and find ways to make “bad guys” compelling to viewers.

In the end, truth can lose its power when used explicitly as marketing. It is more powerful when it forms in consumers minds as a result of the authentic stories you tell, sincerely.

The New 3 Rs?: Reuse, Restore, Replenish

It’s high-time I embraced the blog format and its truncated editorial format. You have to forgive me and my editorial background, but it’s almost painful for me to write any article less than 600 words. It just feels like a partial treatment. But I’ll learn to adapt.

It’s been a year since the Replenish package was introduced to the public. Whether it is on the verge of widespread acceptance is not clear, but the effort was a bold and courageous one nonetheless.

First, the brand name is substantial and loaded with connotations. It means—almost literally—“refill.” The name also suggests the next (or current?) wave of sustainability consciousness, Restore. Replenish means to make complete again, or Restore to its original condition.

Second, the integration of the refill portion and the bottle itself is ingenious. The process in using the bottle may not be completely intuitive, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. The man behind the bottle explains in a CORE77 article how he tapped into the latest materials, technology and design thinking to create his concept.

The understated logo lets the product and the bottle be the star and the brand messages are concise. A nice water-level line in the logo’s middle “e” seems to convey wide meaning with minimal disruption. The marketing is a bit cheeky to grab interest, but it never betrays any of the green propositions.

The website, spare with only a few pages, even features a “Reuser Pledge.” This pledge includes a nice mix of sustainability messages pleasantly presented:

“I pledge, to the best of my ability, to squeeze every drop out of every last drop. To challenge the notion that nothing lasts forever. To take matters into my own hands and Mix Local. To think what I do through to the end. And to enjoy a clean home and tidy conscience. I pledge to be a Reuser.”

Clever turns of phrase here include Mix Local (echoing Buy Local) and a switcheroo of common clichés, in “A clean home and a tidy conscience.” The messages are all there, though it will be interesting to see how soon these ideas can become mainstream. New packaging innovations often need substantial educational campaigns to assuage the public’s reluctance to try something new.

Sustainable Brands ’12: Inspiration Grounded in the Real World

The first week of June in San Diego was an exceptional congregation of thought leaders sharing their insights and successful case studies of sustainability and corporate social responsibility that have been widely successful.

The conference drew about 1,400 attendees eager to learn more about how to implement sustainable production and marketing strategies. The tagline was on target and timely, “The Revolution Will Be Branded,” as President Clinton echoed the same sentiment recently.

Videos of the main stage plenary speakers at SB 12 are here.

My part in the proceedings was bringing together four packaging sustainability experts:

Jon Dettling, managing director US, Quantis
Michael Dupee, VP of corporate social responsibility, Green Mountain Coffee
Arnold Barlow, senior manager, sustainable solutions, UPS
David Lear, executive director of Corporate Responsibility at Dell Computers

Each relayed how their companies strive to create efficient shipping practices by finding the sweet spot between product protection and reduced, or more sustainable, materials. I added a few comments to the proceedings, shared here:

Sustainability is not a new movement in the packaging world. In 2005, when architect and sustainability visionary Will McDonough spoke at the first Sustainable Packaging Forum in 2005, in Philadelphia, he challenged the packaging industry to rethink everything. At the time, I was Editor-in-Chief of Package Design Magazine, and it was certainly a significant event. At the same event in 2005, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition launched the first draft of its ambitious sustainable packaging definition. It was 10 pages long then, which gives you some indication of how the seemingly simple concept of packaging can turn complex very quickly.
Secondly, With the scale of packaging for fast moving consumer goods, small, incremental changes can make large contributions to sustainability goals. That’s why many consumer goods companies first looked to more sustainable materials as an easy way to move the needle. But, as our panelists will discuss, now the industry understands that more often the conversation should be about supply chain efficiencies.
And thirdly, Working so much inside the branding industry for the past 10 years, I always have to remind myself that most of the public thinks of a product and its package as separate things. However, For many consumer goods that you find in grocery stores and drug stores, this is simply not true. In consumers’ subconscious, the package is the brand and is the product. This has actually been proven in several different ways, though we don’t have time to go into that here.
But because the package is the brand, any change, however small, comes with risk.
Beyond all that, I know packaging is powerful media that can change attitudes, create expectations, and expand use occasions. It can be marketing both with words and marketing without words, and it can change behavior not just by verbally convincing users to change behavior, but by the design itself, often intuitively.
Burt’s Bees is a great brand model to learn from. The “The Greater Good” is a trademarked brand promise, and the company created a flow diagram is to show the most green consumer how the company views the interconnectedness of the well-being of all their constituents, as they call them. Which is, well, everyone.
And they use sustainable packaging as a marketing benefit. Even though sustainability symbols have become alphabet soup to a degree, certification and symbols still convey believability and credibility. They certainly push the limits of consumers’ ability – or you might say desireto process all of the information.
Sustainable packaging mission statements are always complicated. What’s important to note here is Burt’s Bees stresses “Systems” twice – finding the best systems and searching for new systems. As we all know now, it’s not just about recycled materials and recyclability.

Sustainable Brands Conference 2012

The Intersection of Branding and Marketing: Guest Blogging at Talent Zoo

Fewer Posts here have been due to increased posts at, where I took a Lead Blogger role temporarily. My catalogue is here.

One blog I particularly enjoyed writing was the debunking of a Harvard Business Review article debunking marketing myths. The blog is titled: “HBR Article: 77% of Consumers Don’t Want Brand Relationships?!”

The HBR article, “Three Myths about What Customers Want,” researchers at the Corporate Executive Board company try to debunk three marketing myths. Myth #1 in the article is “Most consumers want to have relationships with your brand,” which is certainly up for debate.

The biggest issue that may have skewed the research results is the fact that they asked such an obvious question in the first place. A series of related questions that probed habits, values, and desires might have been much more revealing. Consumers are not good judges of their own motivations. The 77% may “say” they don’t have relationships with brands. But what they actually do in real life would probably reveal a different story.

That complete blog post, with more detailed analysis, is here.

I will continue to define the new age of branding and marketing both on this platform and at


R.I.P. Larry the Quaker Man – Redesigned and Redefined

Another American institution will soon be gone forever. A younger, trimmer Quaker Man has taken Larry’s place.
Early in the 20th Century, the chairman of Quaker Oats said: “If the business were split up – I would take the brands, trademarks and goodwill, and you could have all the bricks and mortar – I would do better than you.”
A brand can be a delicate construct, an embodiment of trust and attachment, only to be tampered with carefully. Of course, Pepsico is going for an evolutionary change, not revolutionary. But the jury is still out on which it is, as the real voters are, naturally, the consumers.

Longtime Quaker Oats spokesperson Wilford Brimley is angry. No, not really, it’s a Stephen Colbert bit. But Steven makes an interesting point by way of comedy, comparing Larry’s “plastic surgery” to other hypothetical brand icon makeovers. He rhetorically ponders how much better Toucan Sam would look with a nose job, the Michelin Man would be after lap-band surgery, or the Aflac duck might after breast augmentation.
Pepsico has done well with many product and line extensions that leverage the “parent” brand of Quaker. Even Life Cereal was watched over by the caring and trustworthy Larry. Especially dangerous to the Quaker brand is that consumers may now learn his name. It would have been much easier to let him go if he had less of a permanent identity. It’s the same reason you don’t name pet pigs that may one day be dinner.
Larry in his most recent form was born in 1946 at the hands of graphic designer Jim Nash (colorized in 1957 by Haddon Sundblom). He will surely be missed. The new logo adds the “Est. 1877” to remind consumers of the heritage. It could be argued that it was the strength of the previous logo that this history reminder was unnecessary. The logo expressed the deep trust associated with a long run of quality products.
Brand communication strategy is sometimes the whole ball game. When you have an institution like Larry, it’s impossible to say all that you might be giving up by letting him go.

One very nice lady
Another brand story related to the Quaker Oats Company is the Snapple brand. Hopefully, some readers recall Wendy the Snapple Lady, in the early ’90s, who would answer “Fan Mail” on TV commercials.
This was direct brand-to-consumer dialogue, and she would even go out and meet loyal customers. The lovely woman had to be partially responsible when sales went from 23 million dollars to reach 750 million dollars per year in the ’80s and early ’90s.
If you recall the Quaker Oats quote about the value of a brand from the beginning of this blog post, there is deep irony here. When Quaker bought the Snapple company in 1994, they couldn’t see the value of the accessible brand identity developed through Wendy’s consumer interaction. During the dark “Quaker Years,” they dropped Wendy and the brand struggled, and Quaker ended up selling the brand at a huge loss.
In 1997, new owner Triarc Beverage Group CEO Mike Weinstein immediately rehired the Wendy, stating “Wendy is the essence of the brand.” He also ran a parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City celebrating Wendy’s return and a new flavor: Wendy’s Tropical Inspiration.
More recently, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group took all the fun out of the Snapple packaging with a redesign that instead emphasized its “all-natural” positioning. In an effort to stave off the expansion of the natural tea market, it also ran TV ads with the tagline: “The best stuff just got better.” I didn’t see—and still don’t see—how that is possible.


A Vintage Quaker Oats Optical Illusion

Classic Wendy Kaufman, The Snapple Lady

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