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What Are Your Signature Stories?

'Finding such stories can help you discover a purpose, set priorities, gain confidence, develop new directions, enhance relationships, engage in a program to gain strengths and more.'

My new book Creating Signature Stories presents the case for using signature stories to represent the purpose of your brand, your firm, or you. Let me focus here on the role of a signature story in your professional and personal life

What are your signature stories? These would be intriguing, authentic, memorable narratives about exceptionally meaningful events or experiences in your professional or personal life or in the life of those who admire who are your role models? Finding such stories can help you discover a purpose, set priorities, gain confidence, develop new directions, enhance relationships, engage in a program to gain strengths and more. And stories can also provide a role in communicating who you are both professionally and personally.

Consider my professional signature story about how I got into branding and the higher purpose that emerged:

In the mid-1980s, I was teaching business strategy from an external, marketing perspective and came to believe that executives were focusing too much on short-term financial results. They were basing decisions on a perceived need to increase sales and earnings to achieve performance targets. I concluded that this emphasis was damaging businesses and, indeed, the larger economy. The solution, as I saw it, was to elevate the long-term health of the business by building assets that would support future growth and profitability.

But what should my role be in this effort? What assets should I focus on? Where would I make a difference?

The answer turned out to be branding. Three factors guided me in this direction. First, a new concept, brand equity, was getting traction in business as firms sought to change their focus toward growing the size and loyalty of the customer base and away from using cost-cutting and brand-damaging price promotions. Second, my prior research and books on advertising, marketing research and strategic marketing management. provided a relevant knowledge base on which to build.

Third, I conducted a study, published in 1989, in which some 248 executives were asked to name the assets and skills that gave their firms a sustainable competitive advantage. Three of their top 10 responses were characteristics of their brands: quality reputation (which finished No. 1), name recognition (No. 3) and customer base (No. 10). Another top response, customer service (No. 2), was at least brand-related.

With this analysis in place, I somewhat grandiosely decided that my future role would be to help firms recognize the asset power of their brands. I would help them learn to create, build, leverage and manage these assets. I hoped to play a small part in the movement to change how firms perceived their brands and, indeed, their marketing and business strategies.

At last, I had a direction and was no longer drifting opportunistically through my research career. I started the journey by embarking with my Berkeley-Haas colleague Kevin Keller on brand-extension research; by working with another colleague, Bob Jacobson, to relate brand equity and stock return econometrically; and by writing a book, “Managing Brand Equity.” And then one thing led to another ….

This signature story helped me crystalize a research and writing direction. It also provided a way to communicate to others a rationale for my books and articles.

A professional signature story should be relevant to a past, present or future career. Find or create stories that help address address three sets of questions:

· Who am I professionally? What motivates me? What are my strengths or weaknesses? What traits would I like to be associated with? Who is my role model?

· What is the higher purpose in my work?

· Where am I going and how will I get there?

Signature stories can also be also be helpful to your personal life. They help define what makes you happy and what gives you meaning. Most personal signature stories involve your family, friends, traditions and activities—and perhaps your health or your ways of helping others. But they also can include memorable stories about role models or others who may have gained your respect and admiration.

Personal signature stories provide several benefits. They enhance memories, allowing you to savor special experiences. They show your values in action. Finally, by identifying relationships and activities that are healthy and productive, versus those that are dysfunctional, these stories help you prioritize your time and allocate resources.

Try this exercise: Look back on your last year or decade: What experiences provided happiness or meaning in your life? What people do you remember most, and what interactions best represented your relationship with them? What actions exemplified your higher purpose or best instincts? What situations provided joy, relief, pride or admiration? Now use those insights to build a story that is intriguing, authentic and involving. Look for challenges, big or small, and emotional moments.

In my case, the power of personal signature stories was exemplified by those involving my three daughters:

Even at a young age, my daughters—Jennifer, Jan and Jolyn—tended to relate to one another more than to me, and it was a struggle for me to establish a close relationship with each. The solution? One-on-one adventures with the label “special days.” I would announce an upcoming special day for one daughter, which meant that she could look forward to a surprise event planned just for her. (And it’s hard to turn down a surprise, isn’t it?) For me, of course, the day would offer quality time with one of my children.

I still remember vividly that first special day, when Jennifer, then age 6, went for a hike with me in the Berkeley Hills; we discussed life and picked poppies. Jan was surprised to be taken to the airport for a trip to an Aaker family reunion at Child Lake in northern Minnesota. For Jolyn, one special day involved a helicopter ride over San Francisco Bay. The memories were precious.

These signature stories and others, often stimulated by unforgettable emotional moments, bring alive the girls’ personalities, values and relationships. But such stories also influence my own priorities, traditions and future activities because they help show what is important in life.

For more on signature stories see my book Creating Signature Stories.

David Aaker, Vice Chairman of Prophet and author of Aaker on Branding and Creating Signature Stories.

David Aaker, the Vice-Chairman of Prophet and Professor Emeritus of Marketing Strategy at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley, is the winner of four career awards for contributions to the science of marketing (the Paul D. Converse Award), marketing strategy (the Vijay Mahajan Award) and the theory and practice of marketing (the Buck Weaver Award), Brilliance in Marketing (NYAMA Marketing Hall of Fame), he has published over 100 articles and 17 books including Strategic Market Management, Managing Brand Equity, Building Strong Brands, Brand Leadership (co-authored with Erich Joachimsthaler) Brand Portfolio Strategy, From Fargo to the World of Brands, Spanning Silos, Brand Relevance, Aaker on Branding and his latest book, Creating Signature Stories.. His books have well over one million copies and have been translated into eighteen languages. Named as one of the top five most important marketing/business gurus in 2007, Professor Aaker has won awards for the best article in the California Management Review and (twice) in the Journal of Marketing. A recognized authority on brand equity and brand strategy, he is a columnist for AMA’s Marketing News blogs at Linkedin and davidaaker.com.

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