Joseph Chaney | September 29th, 2023

“Draw snake, add feet”

The Chinese language is chock-full of ancient idioms that cleverly convey the plethora of predicaments, contradictions and tensions that animate human life. One of these – 画蛇添足 (literally: “draw snake, add feet”) – illustrates the challenge that many of New Narrative’s clients face as they seek to tell their stories in this turbulent macroeconomic environment.

That challenge is to resist, at all costs, the temptation to exaggerate.

The expression comes from an old story about men competing to see who could draw a snake the fastest. The winner stood to receive a jug of wine from a local official. The victor drew his snake so fast that he arrogantly added feet to it while he waited for his competitors to finish. The second-place finisher then completed his snake and won the prize, because he rightly pointed out that snakes don’t have feet.

It is as much a story about hubris as it is about the dangers of embellishment. And what was true in ancient times is still true today: authenticity matters.

On a tightrope

Why is this relevant to New Narrative’s thought leadership work? That’s simple: for thought leadership to ring true, it must reflect reality and lived experience. Is the editorial output too bland and generic, and lacking any mention of the vicissitudes of real life? Prepare to lose readers. Or is it too sensational and exaggerated – and therefore unbelievable? Prepare to lose credibility.

The first, more conservative, impulse – to produce work that is deliberately uninteresting and inoffensive – is all too common among large corporations. For obvious commercial reasons, many companies are afraid to stick their necks out and say anything remotely provocative.

Other companies (albeit far fewer) swing too far in the other direction: They are so eager to gain traction with an audience that they embellish and exaggerate their stories in a way that undermines their credibility. They add feet to snakes.

The pain is real

One of the most telling examples of exaggeration via marketing in recent years was co-working giant WeWork’s attempt to package itself as a “tech company” in the lead-up to its planned IPO in 2019. But the market knew WeWork was not a tech company – it was, and is, a modern real estate company. The market’s punishment for such distortions was severe: a massively inflated – and later discounted – valuation; a delayed IPO; thousands of layoffs; and a CEO who lost his job.

Even so, WeWork soldiered on and just two short years ago eventually went public via a SPAC. Now, with a different CEO on board, it is trying to be a tech company again with its WeWork Workplace product, a software tool that helps employers manage employees. Though this time the pain of past hubris will likely motivate WeWork to really be a tech company – or at least have a genuine tech-focused business unit.

Business-as-usual or total crisis?

This is admittedly an extreme case. But the same cautionary tale applies to more run-of-the-mill thought leadership campaigns.

Let’s stay with the China theme. Most of us can agree that the inbound China investment story has shifted dramatically in recent years, due in large part to changes in China’s economic outlook. These changes – whether driven by the continued hangover from China’s (now abandoned) zero-Covid policy, a youth unemployment crisis, the housing market slump, or trade tensions with the US – are impossible to ignore.

That is why it is important that companies refrain from publishing China campaigns that paper over these challenges and claim it is business as usual in the Middle Kingdom. Anyone paying attention can see this isn’t the case in China. Such a claim would be an unsupportable exaggeration.

At the same time, China is not collapsing. Without a doubt it will outlive us all. There are strong companies building compelling brands. There are billions of consumers who need food, clothing, and who want to travel and invest and – less so now, but eventually – consume and spend. China is not “finished.” Such a claim would also qualify as an unsupportable exaggeration.

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. And clients and investors deserve that truth – warts and blemishes included – in all its ragged glory.

It is what it is

All of this reminds me of Warren Buffet’s quote about the time Berkshire Hathaway spent US$6.5 billion to help confectionary and food giant Mars purchase chewing gum titan Wrigley’s: I don't think the Internet is going to change how people chew gum, he said.

In other words: Let’s not overdo it, folks. Chewing gum is just that – chewing gum. It is nothing more than a chewable candy that kids and adults love and that freshens one’s breath. Gum has no home in a tech marketing campaign. It has very little to do with the Internet.

Mr Buffet strikes me as a man that knows what the ancient Chinese philosophers knew: adding feet to snakes in your marketing campaigns is risky and unnecessary – and will likely result in more pain than gain.

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