“Let me start with a story.” That was how David Aaker started his acceptance speech at last week’s 2015 Marketing Hall of Fame induction. More a simple reality than a clever perspective, the power of story was reflected in one way or another in all four acceptance speeches, from Aaker, Vice Chairman of Prophet and Professor Emeritus of UC Berkley, to Trevor Edwards President of NIKE Brand, Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, and Shelly Lazarus, Chairman Emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather.

Edwards demonstrated the storytelling power of sound and pictures in the evening’s most extensive use of video, drawing on the brand’s inexhaustible trove of footage, emphasizing repeatedly how, at Nike, it tells a consumer story first and foremost. As he said, “At the end of the day, no matter how creative an effort, the real question is ‘does it serve the consumer?’”

Lazarus started by telling the story of a simpler time – of Mad Men days — wondering, “How did they find the time for that much sex?”  before turning to the story of today’s consumer. Here she turned to real-life dialogue, uttered recently by a “hipster 20-something” who advised her agency’s researchers, “Would you please tell those people when we go to Facebook, it’s not because we want to have a deep relationship with Wishbone salad dressing?”

The impact of those two recipient presentations notwithstanding, the two most compelling – and telling – story arcs of the evening belonged to Aaker and Chouinard. The former professor started his overview of modern marketing history this way: “Some 85 years ago, 1931… on a really rainy Friday morning… Neil McElroy, who was then a 28-year-old advertising manager for Proctor & Gamble’s Camay soap, sat down and wrote on his Royal Typewriter – anybody know what a Royal Typewriter is? – and he wrote a three-page memo defending why he should hire two people to help him manage the Camay brand. He… went on to become a very successful CEO of P&G… but probably the most significant thing he did was write that memo, which became the basis for the Proctor & Gamble brand management system that was used for decades at firms around the world.”

The sad reality is that customers really are not interested in your brand, your offering or your firm. – David Aaker, Vice-Chairman, Prophet

Aaker went on to tell how the marketing model was transformed by the advent of brand equity and its concept of the brand as a business asset; of the shift away, in his well-documented view, from “my brand is better than your brand” marketing to innovation-driven, sub-category marketing; to the ascent of story, of meaningful content as the only means to break through to the “sweet spots” of consumer’s life interests and passions (given consumers who “really are not interested in your brand, your offering or your firm”).

Chouinard himself was the evening’s best example of what Aaker was touting, at least as regards story – and he was also likely the least comforting to the crowd at hand. Here’s how he launched into his acceptance speech:  “I don’t really deserve this, because marketing at Patagonia is very simple. We just tell people who we are. I don’t have any agencies to thank up here. [Marketing is] a pretty easy task if you have nothing to hide and you have interesting, true stories.

If you’re going to build a brand based on honesty and telling about your product and business, you better have some interesting stories to tell. – Yvon Chouinard, Founder, Patagonia

When I die – and go to hell – the Devil is going to make me a Marketing Director of a cola company.  That’s a product with a few cents worth of flavorings and high-fructose corn syrup and water… and it’s guaranteed to give you diabetes and make you fat.  So, I’ll have to build a marketing campaign and pay high-priced celebrities to lie about how they love the product… and I’ll probably have to use a bunch of now-worthless words – like authentic, gourmet, natural, sustainable and adventure – words that have been over-used and mean nothing anymore.  I may even have to reinvent the Marlboro man or something.”

Then, after implicitly questioning the raison d’être of most in the room – and doing it in the most charming, least offensive manner possible – Chouinard, the legendary blacksmith-mountain-climber-entrepreneur-iconoclast, continued:  “If you’re going to build a brand based on honesty and telling about your product and business, you better have some interesting stories to tell.  Now I’m going to tell a few…”

This year’s Marketing Hall of Fame induction ceremony was indeed full of interesting stories  and, if the crowd was listening, the future of marketing will be even more of a storyteller’s realm.

Image: Maryana Hordeychuk