People sometimes ask me what Thread does and what my job as a researcher involves, and it’s hard to answer briefly. And I like briefly. It suits my nature — a voluble friend and I have a running joke that if we were both works of literature, she’d be Middlemarch and I’d be a haiku. But sometimes those questions happen and, reasonably, questions expect an answer will follow.
What Thread does comes before what I do, so let’s start there. Thread helps brands tell their stories. Not in a spin sort of a way, but in a way that helps them be clear, to say what they mean, and really mean what they say. My job involves doing several behind-the-scenes things in support of all that. My favorite thing that I do — the thing that by turns enlivens, irritates, scares, delights and challenges me — is what we call wandering in the woods.
Thread wanders in the woods before anyone sits down with their laptop to write. When a client comes to us for help with their story, they often don’t know yet who they are or what that story might even be. Or maybe their business has grown up over time, but their web site (or packaging, or core values) still reflects their company’s adolescence. A story can’t be invented (that would be pure spin); it has to be found. Where we go to find it is deep in the woods, a place where competitor brands have failed to go.
No brand exists alone, without a larger cultural context. It’s in a constant give-and-take with the world. But getting a clear view of what’s happening in the wider world can feel like opening the front door and waving a hurricane inside. Check the news! What does the Twitterverse say? Instagram has an opinion! (Oh, p.s., notification says the luxury sweat pants are back in stock!) Wandering in the woods pauses for breath. It takes some preparation, as any hike does. We pull on our boots, pack a lunch, expect rain. More than a bit of discipline helps — otherwise rabbit holes will lead to rabbit holes, and soon hours have passed and the trail home is an opaque mist of tweets, links and ads warning against One Weird Vegetable.
“What we’re reaching for is something like meaning therapy for brands.”
Thread wanders in the woods because it takes us onto paths we couldn’t see from the highway. We slow down. We look around. We don’t necessarily become experts; we extend empathetic curiosity. We stroll into someone else’s universe for a little while, and we ask questions. We work to understand what their competitors are doing and talking about, what their customers think, who loves them and who’s confused by them and who’s never heard of them, what they believe and say about themselves. Ultimately we want to answer the question consumers will ask: Why should I believe in what this brand is putting out there?
My part of this process usually involves opening the door to a whole lot of information, then sorting and reducing and raking that information into tidy piles. Looking for patterns, trying to make sense. My Colleagues Who Write will sift the piles further, taking the gems to add to the piles they’ve been making over on their own desks. What we’re reaching for is something like meaning therapy* for brands.
Meaning is the thing that my job (and Thread) aims to bring about. It’s part of our own workplace culture to resist meaninglessness. Repel the forces of jargon, bust buzzwordery, nope out of empty promises. At our best, we’re working to hold brands accountable for what they say (to their customers, to Instagram, to their employees). The world we want to live in knows applesauce when it hears it and just isn’t having it. So that’s what we head for, one story at a time.
* I say therapy, but of course we’re not actual therapists. Though if this interests you, there’s a branch of psychology, called narrative psychology, that trusts story as much as Thread does.
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