Storytelling and how success is marketed.

When we open the brown envelope the message reads: “Everything you need to know about this is within reach, whether it’s the digital realm at present or the evolving immersive ecosystem”.

Several books, and articles you read would have you believe it’s a listicle process in which you stringently follow a “what to do”. Perhaps some are, but in reality it’s a social matrix of competing, paradoxical, cognitive dissonance things. Trouble is as a species we don’t do effort, complexity and inertia well. It consumes way too much energy. What we like is simplicity, things being effortless and processes being frictionless.

Before I expand on this, a thought experiment that might help see a change in your thinking to this article.

Imagine you’re a young boy or girl coping in a foster care system. Your parents eventually claim you. You’re sent to grow up in a land from which your parents originate. It’s a country wracked by attempted military coups and instability. A brittle divorce and new stepmother leads you to spend as much time as you can in a boarding school you won a scholarship to attend. You catch malaria dozens of time — sometimes making you seriously ill.

Years later back in the UK, you’re at a complete loss, but people tell you you have an active imagination. You will yourself and by chance fall into a profession that leads to your father refusing to talk to you for fifteen years. And then people so different to you, national figures even, comment on you and your work. People like these ones (click here).

From clicking, does the nature of what you’re now about to read change your perception of the author? Whilst success is a relative term, it’s invariably amplified through provenance, fables or the media. Failures, dependent on cultures are hidden.

On America’s Got Talent, a man wrongly incarcerated for 37 years is yet to sing a single key, but has the audience’s empathy in his hand recounting his story. His Al Green-ish vocals steal the show.

The manner in which we form relationships often boils down to buying into a story. More often stories have a retrospective feel to make a point. Hindsight is the author’s friend at making a narrative stick. The more familiar they end up to your world view, the more you find them acceptable. So here’s one that symbolises that message in the brown envelope.

Today, Jell-O is one of the largest selling desserts there is, inescapable at parties and hotels. It acquired its name in the late 1800s when New Yorken Pearl Waite, a part time carpenter, sought to make this gelatinous substance popular. It came from animal bones and fat when boiled; something you may have noticed when cooking a Sunday roast.

It had already been popular amongst the French, so like many cross cultural ideas Waite thought he was onto something particularly when he mixed in different dyes and flavours from fruits. His wife May came up with the name, yet try as the couple could Jell-O wouldn’t sell. Consumers couldn’t make out what it was. Was it a desert, meal or starter? Waite exhausted all he could do.

In our matrix of becoming successful, consumers, audiences, crowds hold the cards. It seems tautological. The “create it and they’ll come” hunch didn’t quite work for Waite. Understand the complexities of the crowd, which we can’t fully in this article and you begin to work through the matrix.

In 1896 and perhaps unknown to Waite, in France a a french psychologist Gustave Le Bon, produced a book Crowd and the Psychology of Revolution. Le Bon had become fascinated with understanding the dynamics of crowds of people, separate from individual people.

The world was facing industrial, social and technological changes and people were forming or becoming involved in new entities from which once they were banned e.g. Women’s rights. Through the power of influencers Le Bon writes about something we’re only too aware of today when he states:

“Under the influence of a suggestion, he (person) will undertake the accomplishment of certain acts with irresistible impetuosity”

Jell-O, as a packaged powder, was sold onto another entrepreneur Frank Woodward for $450 around $13,800 in today’s money who, despite his adeptness in sales also found it difficult to sell and wanted rid of the of it for $35 about $1000.

In 1902, he hit on an idea. It’s worth noting there’s no television, no cinema, though the idea of marketing and advertising from early ad agencies in 1840s, was in flow. What if Woodward and his team created posters and booklets explaining what Jell-O was? Something desirable to turn your kitchen into nouvelle cuisine.

Jell-O was touted as America’s most famous desert — an untrue strap line — and they would be given away free, distributed door by door in various cities where sellers would ordinarily require a license to sell their wares. At this stage there’s no guarantee it would work and certainly not a model means of business that anyone would follow. It is the era of Freud and Carl Jung and birth of analytical psychology. The posters may look dated, but if you’re living in the 1900s, this is innovation, UX design, creating a desire.

Fifty years ahead, entrepreneurs would be employing depth psychologists to explore why people made choices by tapping into their unconscious thoughts.

So when American wives ( it was mainly wives at the time) rejected a new cake formula because the ingredients came pre-packed making them redundant, it took Ernest Dichter’s mind-work exploring women’s personalities to uncover the seemingly irrational relationship wives had with a cake and their husbands. It was like delivering a baby — a bun in the oven, they said. Dichter solved his client’s problem. Place visible text on the packet stating “add one egg”.

Come 2010ish understanding people’s personalities has evolved to understanding who you are like via signals that exist inside us. Facebook as a hyper-charged Le bon, finding those myriad of data points, and better understanding clusters of personalities within crowds.

Back in 1904 Woodward’s approach creates a desire. He informs shops that customers will be looking out for this product and shop owners begin to stock. It’s a success. Is it replicable? Did Woodward know his product would be the Netflix to competing products as Blockbuster? Possibly not. But he had tried a myriad things that like the Netflix story can seem frictionless. Could Woodward have comprehended what might be a wicked environment (where conventional approaches wouldn’t work), to kind environments that are workable from passed down formulas?

Whilst you might be aware of conditions that facilitate success, its complexity is often reduced to memes. It’s rarely the case you could predict right now with certainty a start up that will be the next Internet beast, or an individual coming from nowhere to rival fandom equivalent to the Kardashians.

But rather than how to be successful, it’s the many ways we think as a rolodex of possibilities that appears worth exploring. An analysis of those who dare and perhaps win are defined as integrationist thinkers.

They combine creativity and cross lane approaches addressed in articles such as this from the HBR: how successful leader’s think, to “Thinking outside experiences” in David Epstein’s insightful Range, or Tim Harford’s enjoyable book, Messy, in which the tidy delineation of delivering solutions is highly over rated. Bowie and Eno’s success in Range was hard won and there can only be one Bowie or Eno, but their methods of using prompt cards to think laterally, or analogously is intrinsically beautiful and unconventional.

An analysis of success often reveals traits and behaviours of innovation, that didn’t exist as the status quo at the particular time and place. It’s the stuff of creatives and artists who turn out ideas one after another, who shaped by their societies and cultures and glimpse a slit to a present yet unknown. These thoughts could well come from the pen of science fiction writers like Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer which has become an index for what’s happening now.

Somehow, somewhere in the depth of ourselves our subconscious lay in wait to accept ideas, triggered by motives and neuro chemicals, not unlike those who might take to Jell-O. The successful laid out in Epstein’s book are generalists and trialists.

Woodard’s sales were predicated on selling a story, which is referenced as marketing. I’m always intrigued when I recount that one of the most amazing sci-fi films Avatar that cost around $300m according to its wiki page, had a behind the story budget ( marketing) of $150m.

So how do you be successful? Truth is I couldn’t begin to tell you, but in the story told are yesterday’s roots and data of where we are now, of the people we might admire for their lateral thinking, of the people we seek to reach with all the complexities psycho-geography offers, the mavericks and artists who do it their way, and to the story of a simple food that now dominates the world Jell-O.

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store