How Curiosity Makes Brand Storytelling Come to Life
BY John Miller
August 31, 2018

When we’re putting together a marketing team, we look for experience. We want people—whether internal hires or an agency team—to have an understanding of our business. It reduces the learning curve, and holds the promise of them being able to help us move forward quickly.

But this approach is limiting.

That’s because another term for experience is the “curse of knowledge”—when we have done something before or feel that we know it, we tend to stop asking questions. We don’t go back to the beginning and dig deep to find new aspects of it. We jump to the conclusion much more quickly. Basically, we stop asking why. We stop learning. That’s bad.

For a marketing team charged with creating a breakthrough idea that catches everyone’s attention, following the path others have traveled previously is a march right up the backs of the competition. Not a good way to win. It’s the boiling red ocean of marketing.

But, hold—there’s a cure for this stagnation: curiosity.

Experience still matters, but when you couple it with curiosity, that’s when great things can happen. It requires an ability to question things that we already “know.” That isn’t easy to do.

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Now, let’s be honest about this. Hiring people with insatiable curiosity sounds great. I bet you’re nodding your head so far. But, are we ready to welcome it into our strategy sessions day after day? The right answer is “we should be”—but that requires changing up how those meetings flow, letting them breathe and not rushing to get to the answer. Insatiable curiosity can be uncomfortable, even annoying. But asking the basic questions, attacking supposedly sacred cows and questioning why is fundamentally how we break away from the pack and create something that gets people’s tongues wagging. And how we start to build a relationship in which they occasionally dip their hand into their pocket and pull out some money.

Curiosity is a state of active interest, a push to gain a deeper understanding. It’s flipping the familiar on its head and asking whether we like it simply because it’s familiar, or because it’s the best approach. It requires suspending judgment and embracing a willingness to rediscover something we’ve discovered before … maybe many times before.

When we’re curious, we can find something meaningful that hasn’t been found before—a new turn of a phrase, a new way to consider the customer problem or a different way of viewing the relationship.

If you’re writing a novel, uncovering those little details is what brings the story to life. The same is true for brand storytelling.

4 ways to put curiosity into action

It’s easy for me to tell you that you need to ask why more frequently, but how do you actually put that into practice? How do you make curiosity a core component of your process without simply acting like the annoying 3 year old always asking why?

Question authority.

Yes, bringing curiosity can take some guts. But a lot of us in marketing like to think of ourselves as rebels and disrupters. So, when push comes to shove and the chief revenue officer is adamant about an established industry truth, will you have the cajones to say, “Are we sure about that?”

For one of our clients, we were creating social content, and they had a very rigid style guide—the rhythm of the posts was always the same. We pushed back, loosened up the style a bit without losing their brand voice, and engagement jumped.

Pinpoint the assumptions, and question them.

All of them. Odds are, the assumptions are correct—but take a moment to consider whether or not they are. It’s a good exercise and can lead to energetic discussions that slightly alter your starting point—which can be a really good thing.

Let’s talk about a recent failed project: We were working with a technology company, and conducted several interviews with their SMEs as our starting point; these were the top people in the company. But try as we might, we couldn’t get good information and insight out of them—they knew their business inside and out, but could not really provide any forward-thinking, thought leadership-type concepts. Now, maybe we could have asked better questions, but our opinion was that we were speaking to the wrong people. They were the “most important” people at the company, but they were not the innovators that were looking around the corner at where things were headed. We should’ve questioned the assumption that they were our best information sources.

Consider the exact opposite point of view.

This might sound kinda childish, like Opposite Day, but looking at a concept or issue, or initiative from 180 degrees away is, by definition, a fresh perspective. You don’t have to stay in the Upside Down forever but consider it. It could be illuminating.

We run the content hub for the Global Citizens Association called Healthy Travel Blog (see the case study here). At one point, we were creating “premium articles”—2,000+ word deep dives into various topics. That worked, but then performance leveled off. So we shelved the premium articles, focused on creating a faster cadence and more frequent (still high quality) content, and all our key metrics zoomed upward.

Have an idea free-for-all.

Have a wide open, and we mean wide open, brainstorm. Anything goes. No idea is a bad one. Say crazy-ass stuff. Out loud. Write it all down. Walk away. Come back to the list the next day and think about some of the ideas—there might be a golden nugget of an idea in there.

We just did this for a client two weeks ago. Struggling to get content ideas on a regular basis, we met with them and spent 90 minutes blurting out any and everything that popped into our head. The result: six months worth of high-quality content ideas. Now we’re rolling.

This is business, so we’re in the habit of working to get everyone on the same page. We embrace enthusiasm for a unified direction. But short-circuiting the process to get there can stunt our growth potential.

Sure, curiosity killed the cat, but it might just save your brand.

Let’s talk about growing your company.

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