In reading from George Orwell's essay, Why I Write, a section stood out to me that relates to why I think "Mad Men" is such a terrific show, and contains a lesson for building and maintaining a great brand. Here is the bit I'm talking about:
I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.
What makes "Mad Men" great are the complex characters and the story lines that unfold because of them. In a world saturated with shallowly scripted "reality" TV and crime dramas ripping their stories from real news headlines, it stands out because we don't see many shows where the characters are so deeply developed.
If you've paid attention to how "Mad Men" has progressed, you'll notice that we have come to know not just the main characters, but also a lot about their lives prior to working together at the agency, including a decent amount about their parents or the people who raised them. As George Orwell notes, our early development has a great impact on the adults we become; affecting how we approach our work, our relationships, and our lives in general.
In watching the characters develop over the seasons, it is clear to me that Matt Weiner has imagined rich back stories for the key characters. We know about their parents, their spouses, their kids, their previous jobs, and in some cases, their childhoods. From these backgrounds, the actors are able to more fully become the characters they portray. By knowing so much about where their character has come from and what they've been through, they can more realistically bring to life how they would behave in the context of the situation they're put in in each episode and season.
So, what does this mean for brands? Well, it's simple really. If you want to have a great brand, you've got to have a great back story. I think this is true of any brand we would deem as being great today. They have a rich history with a coherent narrative. They've stayed true to the bigger purpose for which they were created, regardless of who has been leading the brand over time.
As an example of this, consider how Starbucks began, how it got off path and has been working at getting back on track. Time will tell if Starbucks will be a lasting great brand, but what we've seen so far from them does show how staying true to your story is critical for success. It also demonstrates how going away from that story can be damaging.
For start-ups, this means you really need to think about the story you want to create for your brand and how what you're doing now is making that story come to life. The more you know about where you want your story to go, the more clearly you'll be able to make the right decisions today and down the road.
In this regard, consider Facebook. So far, the story they're creating is one filled with constantly changing things in ways that break people's trust. If they have intentions of sticking around, they better start thinking critcally about the story they're creating and how that compares to the story they want to be told down the road.
As we all know, actions speak louder than words. Along with a clear sense of purpose, having a strong back story is a key component to guiding your actions in a consistent manner over time. Consistency matters because consistent behavior is what builds trust, and trust is a required element to any strong relationship, including those between brands and people.
If your brand is fortunate enough to have a strong back story, lean heavily into it. Let it help you decide what you should be doing, in concert with your purpose and ambitions. If your brand doesn't have a strong back story, start creating one today. Determine where it is you want to end up and start creating the story that takes you there.