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The Zelensky phenomenon: the power of creating stories and knowing how to tell them

FRANCESC PUJOL Professor at the Faculty of Economics, University of Navarra

The leading role that Volodymyr Zelensky is playing in the cataclysm in Russia and Ukraine first aroused surprise, now for many it has turned into admiration. His extraordinary political communication skills are applauded, even by rivals. Some attribute it to his training as an actor and comedian, but his talent and professional experience is not the cause, it is the instrument.

The source of his strength is his conviction of the profound power of communication. His communicative approach clearly responds to the branding logic, whose main keys I unravel in this analysis. For this reason, in addition, the key is not that he is an actor, since the actor interprets the stories created by others, but that he has been a screenwriter, who is the creator of stories, and has been a producer, who is the one who knows how to bet on stories. They connect well with the public.

branding logic

The branding logic is not primarily communication. It belongs to the sphere of marketing. It is primarily a way of understanding each other, from a process of self-understanding –applicable both to the personal and corporate spheres–, of getting to the core of the most basic reasons that move us to act. It is about getting to the why, which Simon Sinek masterfully portrays in his essay The Key Is Why. That why is the center of identity. Once the identity is understood, the main values ​​that configure it are connected.

Once the map is configured, we can talk about communication: how to make them know our identity, our why? The purpose can be made known, but it is more accessible to deploy it from the values ​​that make it up. The objective is therefore to ensure that the public we are targeting associates us with that set of own values ​​that allow them to identify and differentiate us, even when what we produce is similar to others.

Doing it directly, telling the world about our values, is cloying; doing it from the product can’t many times, because the product doesn’t contain values. What’s left? indirect pathways. Almost all of them dance around the same idea: tell stories, tell stories. Because stories are basically containers of values. The usual stories bring us morals, the classic stories are because they bring valuable morals.

This is the realm of communication in branding logic: telling stories, with a clear purpose: showing our values ​​and connecting with listeners through values. These stories can be stories, images or symbolic gestures.

Communication in branding logic is quite paradoxical: it is bound to be boring and tiresome, because it must always be articulated around the same values; but in practice it is rich and surprising, because it rests on the creativity of the infinite stories that we can build around that collection of values.

Steve Jobs showed in an internal session with his senior executives for the presentation of the mythical Think Different campaign a deep understanding of branding logic, although he does not mention it because the term was not coined.

Zelensky, Master Storyteller

Volodímir Zelenski’s crisis communication is full of stories, images and gestures. It is communication in pure branding logic, although Zelenski probably did not raise it intellectually as such, nor did Jobs. But both handle it with and by conviction, clearly and masterfully.

From what has been presented, it is understood that communication through stories is not in itself branding. For it to be part of that ecosystem, its foundation must be branding: it must be based on and be the manifestation of a clear identity supported by specific values. It is in the case of Zelensky.

The axes of actor Zelensky’s unexpected presidential candidacy are clearly articulated around one purpose: the transformation of Ukrainian society, politics and economy to uproot the endemic culture of corruption.

As can be deduced from his inaugural speech, the pro-European proposal is integrated as part of this project of social transformation. That is also why, in a way that is as coherent as it is surprising, his campaign did not focus on antagonism with Russia, an inevitable and recurring central theme in all the winning candidates until then.

Posing this purpose as the axis of the campaign and of the presidential action can be seen as something foggy, generic and simplistic. This is how it was generally branded by analysts who came in 2019 to explain the surprising massive victory of Zelensky, with 73% of the votes in the second round.

However, if the purpose is clear, but above all authentic, it gives solidity and guidance, as happens in all organizations that are born with a real purpose. And it is indeed simplicity, but not simplism.

Again the heart is the identity and the purpose, the deployment is to communicate it by creating stories. And it is there where Zelenski is demonstrating an unquestionable mastery, which is undoubtedly indebted to his professional past. As we said, mainly as a screenwriter, which gives him the ability to create captivating stories. His inaugural speech was loaded with powerful narrative-creating images:

“Each of us is the president now. Not only 73% of Ukrainians who voted for me. Everyone, 100%. It is not mine, it is our common victory. And it is our common opportunity for which we take a shared responsibility. And now it wasn’t just me who took the oath. Each of us, each of us, put a hand on the Constitution, and each of us has sworn allegiance to Ukraine (…) Yes, we have chosen a (political) direction towards Europe, but Europe is not somewhere there , is here (points to his head). And when Europe is here (again he points to his head), he will come to our country. This is our shared dream».

They are calls to action clearly reminiscent of JF Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961.

The Ukrainian president before the invasion

Having a clear purpose not only makes it easy to script the speech; It is also a fundamental ally for making strategic, tactical and management decisions. When the crisis phase arrives, the branding logic activates the responses, because the identity gives consistency and coherence to the action.

And although the emergence of the charismatic leader from the beginning of the head-on clash with Russia has surprised locals and foreigners alike, it is the natural result of that rootedness in purpose and conviction in the power of communication. It was surprising to see that, in the midst of the worsening phase of the crisis with the dialectical clash between Russia and the United States, Zelensky’s voice called for lowering the tension. Surprising, but consistent with his presidential principles.

Zelensky’s outpouring of communication since the time of the invasion has been simply amazing. All of his interventions have generated revenue for his cause. The first and fundamental, to convince the people of him of an impossible thing to make it possible: to resist the invader to win him.

To do this, he has returned to the principles and images of his presidential start: “If you are presidents of Ukraine like me, I am a soldier in the service of Ukraine like you.” And therefore he shows himself and acts as a soldier, and not as a marshal. He does the madness of dressing as a common soldier, without a uniform or decorations or protection. He acts like a soldier, sharing a table and ranch with soldiers. He acts like a soldier, avoiding formalities and barriers at press conferences.

And finally he acts like a heroic soldier, when he announces that they are coming for him and he doesn’t know if he will survive the night, but that he will still be in Kiev. And he gives the already mythical response to the logical tactical proposal of the allies to evacuate him and give him refuge: «Give me ammunition, not a ride».

For the president to show up and act like a soldier to a heroic degree is the most powerful call to action for his people. Has it been Zelensky’s communication in branding logic that has made the army and the population resist the powerful invader, against the plans expected by the Russians? I don’t know to what extent, but surely for millions of them yes, which in turn have awakened the conformed or doubtful. It is a crisis in which his leader has really played a determining role in the development of the first phase of the invasion, without a doubt.

Yes, this communication strategy seems simple, but it is tremendously powerful. And populist communication? It shares similarities due to the use it makes of the story, although it has completely different foundations. But that is a matter for another analysis.

This article has been published in The Conversation

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