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Why People Share Stories about Brands

We recently reread Adam Morgan’s classic Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands can Compete against Brand Leaders. First published in 2000, Big Fish was ahead of its time. Eleven years ago, there was no Google, no iPod, no YouTube, no Facebook. Yet, Morgan spoke in brave new terms about taking on the market leader with unconventional, mind-share-grabbing techniques – like viral marketing.

“Wait!” you shout. “Viral marketing didn’t even exist in 2000.” Really? We would submit that viral marketing is nothing new. In the 1980s, a company in Copenhagen began distributing free postcards featuring funny (or shocking) product ads, which bar patrons would then mail to their friends as jokes, thus spreading the brand with very little investment. By the mid-90s, a product called GoCards could be found in bars all over New York City; that enterprise spread across the nation and spawned the very successful agency GoGorilla Media. But we’ll save the rest of that story for another post…

Meanwhile, what struck our “brand fancy” in this reading of Big Fish was a very brief discussion of the five situations that might cause consumers to share news about a brand. Buried on pages 195-96 (hardback, Second Edition, John Wiley) was a page-and-a-half list of reasons that brand ideas go viral. We thought we’d share our version of his observations:

  1. Because people love bragging rights (i.e., “I saw it first; that makes me cool.”)
  2. Because people are enthusiastic about the product’s performance (i.e., “Look at how this brand does what it does; it’s startlingly impressive, and that’s cool.”)
  3. Because people aspire to be like the things they admire (i.e., “This brand is authentic, or ethical, or socially relevant; I respect that, and that’s why I’m cool.”)
  4. Because people are addicted to news (i.e., “This is current, or shocking, or entertaining and I’m connected; therefore, I’m cool!”)
  5. Because people want to have creative fingerprints (i.e., “This is novel, innovative, clever, or visionary, and by passing it along to you, I become more cool.”)

Notice a pattern? Cool. So did we.

But what makes us wonder is which of these motives actually has staying power. After all, no brand wants to be a flash in the pan.

Bragging rights are fleeting: only one person can be first. Unusual performance, once recognized as popular, is quickly mimicked. Borrowed creativity is, at best, a false identity. And yesterday’s news isn’t news at all – it’s history.

On the other hand, authenticity, ethics, and social relevance really matter. These are the stuff the human race is made of. These are the things that endure. So, while any of Morgan’s five motives might spark a viral infection, the drivers that last are the ones congruent with our more noble values.

Which leads us to the moral of our story: Brands seem to matter, long term, to humans, when humans matter, long-term, to brands.