January 11, 2023 | Glenn McManus
Ever wish there were a playbook for powerful brand storytelling? There is one, called “The Red Thread,” packed with marketing cheat codes for getting to the core of your brand story, telling it in a way that resonates with your audience, and more. The book’s author and idea strategist for TedX Cambridge, Tamsen Webster, shares her tips for building big ideas that drive customer action, so your brand can live happily ever after.
8:40 – Cheat Code #1 – Know what a Red Thread is
A Red Thread is a story we tell ourselves that drives action. Read on for how Tamsen came up with this concept.
A Red Thread is a story we tell ourselves that drives action. Chris Anderson of Ted called it a throughline. Most of us know it as ‘the big idea’ behind something.
I had this phrase “The Red Thread,” which I heard my Swedish clients use. I initially thought it must be a Swedish phrase, because when asking, ‘What’s the big idea of something?’ they would ask, ‘What’s the Red Thread?’ Not only did my inner alliteration lover delight in that, but it’s also such a visceral image for the thing that connects things.
I’d come up with this process separately, this method of figuring out the story that we tell ourselves. And it was when I discovered why the Red Thread is called the Red Thread that I was like, ‘Oh, this is a name for the same thing. It is a description of both the method and the output of what you’re looking for.’
In the context of this throughline, we believe that comes from the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Red Thread is what Ariadne gave Theseus to help trace his path through the labyrinth to the Minotaur, so that after defeating it, he could find his way back out again.
12:37 – Cheat Code #2 – Reframe the story
If you want to truly reach your audience, you need to reframe the story from your point of view, to theirs.
If we can surface that story and articulate it for somebody else, in the language that person will understand, from their point of view, then we’ve got a really powerful thing because we’re now telling our idea through the lens of the story somebody else will tell themselves and others.
The most common mistake I see people make is explaining why our idea is right from our point of view. We forget that we did not always have that perspective; in fact, we had to venture through certain steps to reach that conclusion.
We’ll say, ‘Hey, you want this thing? Well, then you should buy our thing.’ But there’s a whole story in between, about why that’s the right answer. And it’s not just features and benefits. It’s a deeper problem you can solve and a deeper belief behind it.
That’s what we have to articulate to people because they’ve got the perspective from outside the maze. We have to recreate the conditions in someone else’s mind that created the idea in our mind, in the first place.
20:44 – Cheat Code #3 – Understand their worldview
Go beyond demographics and psychographics by understanding your audiences’ view of the world.
The Red Thread exposes our means to the ends, so we can better articulate it to our audiences. Because ultimately, it’s not just the product that people are looking for; they’re looking for, ‘Does this product align with how I see the world?’ It’s important to understand that and go back to ask, ‘How do we see the world?’ so that you can clearly articulate it to people.
If you are in the mindset of, ‘We want to get peoples’ attention and keep them aligned with us,’ then you have to know what those people want, and how your product fits into their worldview, not how you can shift their worldview to accommodate your product.
It’s our job to figure out why our idea would make sense to these people without them having to change what they want, their beliefs, and without us having to convince them. It’s important to get deeper than demographics, than psychographics and say, ‘What’s the worldview of these people?’
Ask yourself, ‘What problem do they want solved? What tensions are they trying to resolve? What are their beliefs based on?’ Those things create the Red Thread, that throughline. It’s like lines of code in an operating system that dictate why a person operates the way they do.
28:01 – Cheat Code #4 – Check all their boxes
Make it impossible for your audience not to take action by satisfying them emotionally, intellectually, and intuitively.
When there’s positive alignment between what somebody wants, what they believe, and what they’re doing, that’s when people feel good because all three major parts of the story feel right.
Storytelling is a logical thing. If the logic works, you get positive emotions. If it doesn’t, you get negative emotions. We can take control of something that many of us feel like we can’t control. You can actually figure out the story that’s logical to the brain, that’s going to arrive at both an emotionally and intellectually satisfying answer.
When it comes to making inactivity impossible, it’s when, on every level — emotional, intuitive, and intellectual — the thing that you’re presenting is a better way for someone to get what they want. It should check all those boxes.
One of the most powerful ways to make inactivity impossible is to make sure you’re anchoring your message about your product or idea in something that you are really sure that person wants and is very unlikely to stop wanting.
39:06 – Cheat Code #5 – Know your source code
Get to know the beliefs that drive your business, aka your source code, so you can identify opportunities to improve.
I see the Red Thread as distinct from but fully connected to a brand, in the same way that the source code of a website and the appearance of the site are distinct but completely interconnected.
The reason why it looks and behaves that way, the reason why your experience with it is the way it is, is because all of that is set in code. Any good developer will tell you if something’s wrong with the website, you have to figure out what’s wrong with the code.
If you can really understand that source code, that Red Thread, that book of beliefs and how they all flow together behind your business, you’re going to understand what the beliefs are that drive the behavior, that then set the brand.
If we can understand those beliefs, then we can solve for so much. We can diagnose where there’s better opportunity. It gives us a much better understanding of who we can serve, and an opportunity to double-down on those things that have made our brand strong.
48:05 – Cheat Code #6 – Don’t forget variation
Your Red Thread will need to live across different audiences, so it’s important to keep variations in mind.
When we try to find the silver bullet for marketing or messaging, we’ve missed the fact that what got us to this point, what got us here, will get us there. We need to understand what that is.
An idea and a message are not the same. A message is how you talk about an idea. This is another place where we’ve gotten it wrong, where we try to find our single brand statement, but that’s only going to be true for a particular audience in a particular situation.
It can sound more complicated to have variations, but it really comes down to choosing the meta variation. Once you know what it is, you can dress it up in different clothing. The quote I use in the book from Agatha Christie is, ‘Words are only the outer clothing of ideas.’
It means that once we understand what the idea is, we can understand the shape of it, so we can message it differently for different people. They’re the same concepts, we’re just positioning it differently. How we talk about what we do changes based on who we’re talking to, what they want to achieve, and what we want to achieve with them.
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