Staying Critical and Selling Stories

I find that artists are often drawn towards some very bad ideas; ideas that might seem beautiful or inspiring on the surface, but upon closer inspection are just a load of B.S.
For this reason, I try to stay critical of the new ideas I come across until I see some sort of real-world evidence to back it up. Anyone can have an idea. Any idea can be true or false.
In casual conversation, and in the art circles, some ideas are very popular, or easy to write about, or lead to good-sounding grant applications; but I don’t see popularity as a good reason to hold on to an idea. Testing an idea against nature, and having that idea confirmed by evidence is the only method I know of which ensures that a idea is not wrong.

“Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled” -Richard Feynman

The new idea that I have been mulling over in my head lately is from Seth Godin, and his ideas on marketing. The man is very charismatic, very entertaining. He has a way of explaining things simply and directly, with a certain irreverence towards the traditional way of doing things (sort of like the attitude Kevin Smith has when he describes his interactions with people in the movie industry). It’s the story of the beloved outsider who comes in, challenges the good old boys, and changes everything. He makes it all sound so easy, once you accept that you are going to have to do the work yourself.

This, of course, has my warning flags raised.
“Anyone who is this easy to like has to be wrong”, says the alarm bells in my head.

I just finished All Marketers Are Liars the other day, and I really enjoyed it. Some of the ideas it presents I would love to implement. But there is a problem. I’m not a business man. I’m not a marketer. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m just an artist who likes to make cool things in my studio, and occasionally post a silly video to YouTube. I have no way of knowing if Godin’s advice is good or bad. It’s outside my range of knowledge. I just don’t know.

So what can I do?

I can watch what’s going on around me, keeping Godin’s ideas in mind, and use his ideas as a framework for making sense of what I see. If what I see makes more sense when framed around his ideas, I’ll know that he is not wrong. I’ll know to lower my warning flags and give his idea a shot.

The idea I am talking about in this case is the importance of storytelling.

According to Godin, when marketing a product, there is a choice between racing to the bottom, and telling a story. You can cut prices until you hit the bottom, or you can make a good product, and tell a good story. The bottom is a crowded place, dominated by online retailers and big box stores, and it’s no fun at all. Telling a good story gives your business far more room to grow.

The story told by marketers might not be the whole truth, but it is certainly not an outright lie. Liars don’t last very long. An example of the kind of storytelling Godin talks about are stores that sell fancy coffee.
You can’t sell coffee as a luxury item simply by raising the prices. That’s not a luxury, that’s a rip-off. Everything you do, every choice you make needs to tell the same story. This includes having a well-trained, well-paid and enthusiastic staff, building great stores with comfy chairs, and having organic, fair-trade products, etc. It’s not just about the product, it’s about the entire ecosystem surrounding it.

So, lately, I have been looking for stories wherever I go; and so far, Godin’s idea is looking like a good one.

I was at the Toronto “One of a Kind Show” last Sunday. It’s been a very long time since I’ve attended a fair like this. Normally, I’m on the other side of the booth, so this felt like a sort of ‘behind enemy lines’ mission. I was watching what artists/sellers did, what perked my interest, what turned me off, and what gathered a crowd.

Despite the name, not everything was truly one-of-a-kind. For example, there were at least two vendors of handmade soap, there were many landscape painters, and there were many fine wooded items.
Each case I observed was quite similar. I am leaving out the names and generalizing, because I don’t want to risk promoting or offending one party over another. For the sake of brevity, I will stick to just one of the examples I compared during the show.

Two booths were selling hand-made soap. Both looked like they had the same product. They looked pretty much the same, they were priced pretty much the same, and it’s soap, so they worked pretty much the same.

If each booth was offering the same product, why did booth 1 attract such a large crowd, while people walked right by booth 2?

Soap company 1 told a story. Behind the seller was a huge banner that read, “Hand made soap, lovingly made by hand with only the freshest of ingredients to give you an invigorating experience”
Soap company 2 sold a product. Hand-made soap.
Booth 1 had a fancy ribbon tied around each individually wrapped bar, turning each chunk of soap into a tiny gift. A card was attached to each ribbon, with relaxation instructions, or a little poem.
Booth 2 had their bars wrapped in cellophane. Attached to the cellophane was a price tag.

Booth 1 was telling me a story about a great product made with love and care to make me feel better after a long, hard day.
Booth 2 was selling me soap.

I walked past these booths several times during the 4 hours I spent at the fair, Booth 2 wasn’t dead, they had customers buying a bar every now and then, but booth 1 had a steady line up the whole day.

Unless booth 2 had a vastly superior checkout system, it’s clear that Godin is right: stories are what draw people in, not products.

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Kyle Clements

Kyle Clements is a Toronto-based artist and nerd. During his thesis at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Kyle began working on his Urban Landscapes series, a body of work that aims to capture the energy and excitement of life in the fast-paced urban environment. After graduating from OCAD in 2006, Kyle spent a year living in Asia to gather source material and experience in a different kind or urban environment. His work is vibrant and colourful. Whether painting the harsh Northern landscape, or capturing the overwhelming buzz of life in the city, his acrylic paintings hover between representation and abstraction.