08/18/2014 03:08 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2014

Losing the Plot

Every picture tells a story. And, apparently, so does every brand manager, account executive and even intern these days. Neither category nor discipline brings immunity.

If you don't believe me, bring a bottle of tequila to your next meeting and take a shot every time you hear the word "narrative." Make sure you arrange for a cab first -- or an ambulance. Because after about half an hour, you won't be able to walk.

More than ever, furrowed-brow posturing over "the brand story" is mandatory. You avoid it at your own risk -- because many brands have been convinced that it is the latest magic marketing beanstalk. No matter how enthusiastically they buy into it, though, what they are likely to wind up with is just a very pricey hill of beans. Caveat emptor.

I don't want to spoil the party, but no matter how overused and meaningless it becomes, the word "narrative" actually has a very specific definition. And its meaning is entirely, critically relevant to effective branding and consumer engagement. Which is what makes its misuse and misinterpretation so frustrating.

The Oxford dictionary defines "narrative" as "the narrated part or parts of a literary work, as distinct from dialogue."

Emphasis mine:

"As distinct from dialogue."

The intensity of conversation that, like a tornado, engulfs brands today, is not without reason --dialogue should be malleable and responsive, even mercurial as fashion. Often, it is fueled by the criticism and reviews of the product. But that is, at best, the dialogue part. It is not the narrative.

That is what so many in our field completely miss. With a jumbled patchwork of sentiment analysis, half-baked creative platforms and short-term strategy, they concoct a hodgepodge of target-audience characters, clichés and scenarios, and lash them together with buzzwords. The hope is that from this backwards, whack-a-mole approach, the brand story will somehow come together out of the sum of its parts.

Call it vignette branding. Or Etch A Sketch marketing. Or positioning dell'arte. But a compelling brand narrative it ain't.

In fact, this hucksterism for snobs is the diametrical opposite of a real brand narrative. It conflates consumer connection with audience manipulation. Like a glorified after-school special, it starts with the desired result -- the associations, actions or thoughts a company wants to trigger -- and then slaps a story line on top of it.

There is a reason why Joyce didn't write Ulysses as a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. ("If Molly says 'yes,' turn to page 782!") Serious authorship demands direction and control. It requires authority -- no pun intended -- over subject and story.

A true narrative is the cornerstone foundation of a brand's identity -- carefully crafted out of core values. It focuses deeply on its subject, the protagonist that is the brand, removing anything extraneous to reveal and convey the core values that stand when all else is taken away. From sin category anti-heroes to sweeping, traditional brand epics, the narrative can vary from the archetypal to the avant- garde. But it is consistent, meticulous and intricately plotted.

Like litigation and surgery, beware turning this over to amateurs and dabblers. From budgets to brand equity, there is simply too much at stake.

In some respects, it is the curious delusion of grandeur that has always plagued the art of writing. So many people who absolutely have no talent for it at all think they can do it. It's why seemingly every retired dentist fancies himself as the scribe of the next great espionage thriller. Good for them! But they are not brands -- or the agencies that purport to serve them.

Now, those who can't write have the resources, buy-in and powerful, real-time, non-erasable global publishing platforms with which to prove it. And when a craft that requires real professionalism and expertise is suddenly reduced to nothing more than jargon, gimmicks and up sells, it is all too easy for many brands -- and the consumers they increasingly contradict and confuse -- to totally lose the plot.