Thursday, March 26, 2009

The name game

Stories and storytelling are passions of mine and favorite post topics. I’m always on the prowl for examples, insights, and ideas about great stories and one subset fascinates me: short stories. I mean really short stories. Maybe it’s inspired by my years in advertising where 30-seconds is a lifetime, but I do believe that fantastic stories can be told in very few words, even without sight, sound, or motion. Let’s start with "man bites dog". Provocative, enigmatic, surprising, and full of strong emotion. Ok, some of you might feel that these three words are only the beginning of a story, a headline if you like, but my response is that even headlines can make strong plays in the story field. A scene in the movie The Shipping News, adapted from Annie Proulx’s book, illustrates this point well. A newspaper publisher is talking to the main character about writing headlines. He asks for a headline to describe the dark clouds forming outside the window. "Horizon fills with dark clouds" is the first attempt. The publisher himself suggests "Imminent storm threatens village". When he’s challenged about what happens if the storm never turns up, he comes straight back with "Village spared from deadly storm". It’s great media logic and illustrates the power of being a man of few words.

Now let’s get even more reductive. I guess you all know that when you see a product like a Toffee Pop biscuit in store, in the product development process it was called something like “that caramel center we cover with biscuit crust and chocolate”, or even biscuit X3766-pm/24. The name Toffee Pop takes the biscuit from product to experience. I saw a great example of this transforming power of naming recently.

A couple of hundred four year-old kids were given carrots and told that these were 'X-ray vision carrots'. (I guess this was a cute play on the old story of Battle of Britain pilots eating carrots to give them sharper vision). I can tell you from experience that carrots are not always a favorite with that age group, but this experiment showed that the children who were offered the 'X-ray vision carrots' ate double the number than the ones who were offered plain old carrots. Even more interestingly, the effect stuck. They continued to munch enthusiastically even if they didn’t have the sexy X-ray name attached. The same results have been found with adults – and sparked a cottage industry in elaborated menu writing. When a Seafood Filet was called a "Succulent Italian Seafood Filet", sales went up 28 percent. People wanted an experience, not just a filet. Researcher Collin Payne summed up the effect beautifully, "Whatever sparks their imagination seems to spark their appetite".


Helen said...


You might be interested in seeing Brian Wansink's other research as well as books (e.g. Mindless Eating, Marketing Nutrition). His story is interesting, his presentations are beyond fun as he is so excited about his incredible work, and the ramifications of his research on addressing the obesity epidemic will be far reaching. He blends his marketing background with his nutrition interest masterfully.

Thanks for a great post. And as an ex-pat Kiwi I can't even begin to tell you how your references to Toffee Pops messed with my head!

danis said...

And of course Hemmingway's famous 6 word story.

"For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn."

sbclarkson said...

Interesting to see that you reference my mother, Annie Proulx, in your post.
I worked at Saatchi for years (running creative for Tylenol until the account group gave it up to Deusch) and still take great interest in what you are up to.

Kevin Roberts said...

Danis, I'd forgotten this... brilliant — Dad.

Kevin Roberts said...

@sbclarkson: Go figure! A small world. Great to hear from you... Hope you're winning - KR.

Kevin Roberts said...

Helen thanks for the insight. I hope the Toffee Pop description didn’t make you too homesick!
Best, KR.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of the Alcoholics Anonymous saying that “ One drink is too many and a dozen is not enough”

It brings the issue into clear focus.