CVS: Narrative of A Brand
You’ve seen the news that CVS, the national drug store chain, will stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products by October 1. The move was lauded by health officials in and out of government, and has been the source of discussion on news shows this week: was it a principled decision or a shrewd business move?
What if this move by CVS was both: a principled decision that was also a shrew business move?
CVS competes toe to toe with Walgreens and some smaller drug store chains, and its frankly hard to differentiate on anything but location and price. The two have experimented with “store within a store” partnerships with grocers and other large traffic stores, but as soon as the model starts to work Wal-Mart starts their own drugs stores within their stores (Wal-Mart is now the third biggest drug store chain in the US)
So how could CVS create some real value in the brand that would, all things equal, cause consumers to choose its stores over Walgreens?
Change the narrative. What’s the story with CVS? Until this week the story was something like “they’re down the street from where I live,” or “they’re next door to the bank.”
Now the CEO of CVS has stood up on his hind legs and declared that no matter what the business consequences, CVS will not sell cigarettes because to do so is, “inconsistent with our purpose.”
Political campaigns understand the “narrative” of each news cycle. if you can establish that your candidate’s explanation of what’s important this week is true and your opponents is sketchy, you win the news cycle. To do so you have spread your narrative to the general public. Do that often enough and you win, right?
More important than winning often is that your candidate’s weekly narratives, over time, feed a consistent, coherent, credible and compelling uber-narrative.
What was Obama’s narrative in 2008? ”Change We Can Believe In.”
Everything came from that, everything flowed into supporting that. The conservative columnist Robert Novak pointed out that Obama’s campaign signs were the first he had ever seen in his life that did not have the name of the candidate on them.
That’s because a majority of voters came to believe in “change” and Obama was the vehicle. Now that’s what a winning narrative looks like. Obama had more trouble in 2012 getting elected in part because the biggest change in four years was in the jobless rate going up.
Narrative to a brand is what one customer tells another customer who asks, “what’s the story with ______.”
What’s the story with Wal-Mart? Lowest price for mediocre quality. It’s the place where blue collar people shop.
What’s the story with Target? Style on a budget. It’s where young, smart people shop.
Who’s got better control of its narrative? Target. Wal-Mart has the world’s biggest supply chain, but it can’t buy its way out of its “image” problems.
“Image” is an interesting word in that sense because it ties in with the 20th century notions about brand. “We need a new image” is how companies thought back then—and many still do today. That’s a problem because it’s not an image, it’s a narrative. You don’t need a new image you need to change the narrative.
What’s the story with Sears? Hmm….Maybe the problems Sears is having are because there is no clear narrative about Sears. Discounts? Auto repair? Popcorn? (Sears stock price today is less than 20% of what it was seven years ago.)
And then there’s the narrative of Apple.
We think about the beautiful design of Apple products, right down to the packaging. But people don’t buy Apple because of visual design, it’s because the thoughtful design of everything Apple does.
And all of that design thinking is in service of the Apple narrative which is: Apple empowers me to Think Different.
Apple may not use the tagline any more, but my own self-image is now so enmeshed in Apple that I won’t buy an Android, even if it’s cheaper and quantifiably better than my iPhone 5S. So I’m buying a narrative that’s bigger than elitist design or hipster cool–at least I think I am. It’s about self-actualization.
I’ll give you one ultimate example of Apple’s narrative: iTunes. Before iTunes there was only Napster—people pirating music so fast that the music business was chopped in half in six years. There was no marketplace for music online. There was no way of enforcing rules in a marketplace so music companies and musicians could get paid.
Steve Jobs built iTunes. In order to do that iTunes had to:
- Be designed to worked flawlessly, so people would want to use it
- Get all the music companies to buy in, so the good music was there
- Had to have a technical architecture that included only Apple players—and could scale
And only Steve Jobs could bring all the music business people to the table. “You’re getting ripped off,” Jobs said, “And I can stop that.”
Steve Jobs is the central player in the Apple narrative.
Steve Jobs is also central in the “creation story” of Apple, but not all narratives are time-based. I think many brand narratives exist in the here and now and nowhere else. Most new online services jump into consciousness fully-formed. Warby Parker. Spotify. Dashlane. I now have almost an on-boarding process for understanding and setting up new online stuff. But for me to install any one of them I have to understand “the story” of that app which is:
Consistent—I’m engaged and I get the message, repeat, repeat.
Coherent—I understand the message
Credible—I believe the message is true (and that gets re-enforced)
Compelling—I care about the message
Please notice that all four of these qualities of a narrative can come from outside a brand—and often do. I get a consistent, coherent, credible and compelling narrative that the Windows user experience sucks compared to Apple, and it always has. If you’re Microsoft and you don’t like that, changing in the narrative has to come from inside the company and all from over the company.
Don’t tell a different story—live a different story.
Paraphrasing Samuel L. Jackson, “so what’s in your narrative?”
I'm Director of Digital Strategy for Hanley Wood Marketing in Minneapolis. We've been in the content strategy and branded content business since 1984. We deliver across content strategy and branded content. I speak in public, often by invitation. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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