How Storytelling Reinvigorates Your Brand

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

Original Research on how major brands use storytelling to drive marketing success. An Extract from
The Future of Marketing by Nick Johnson.

“Transcendent purpose is effectively communicated through stories”
– Paul J. Zak, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling”

Managing a Brand in Collaboration with Customers

As we’ve seen, what it takes to build and maintain a brand has changed extensively over the last decade. Changes will continue as marketers begin to build authenticity, relevance, and transparency into everything they do.

Experience Supersedes Logo

Experience now defines a brand more extensively than the public relations and communications team ever could. Every time someone picks up the phone to call your customer service department, every time someone clicks through to your Facebook page, and every time someone walks into your store – every one of those instances is far more powerful in supporting or breaking down your brand than any number of poster campaigns or TV advertisements.

Equally, the rise of social media has given every one of your customers a loudspeaker – a tool with which to influence how your brand is perceived on a large scale. As such, brand is now more than ever a conversation between company and customer. As Jason West, formerly
Chief Marketing Officer for HJ Heinz, points out, it’s absolutely critical for the company to listen to those customers, understand their perception of brand, and use this understanding to inform future decision- making. All too often, this simply doesn’t happen:

“There’s a temptation for brands when writing a brand positioning statement to assume they’re writing down what their consumers say – like, ‘Ah, this is what we mean to consumers.’ Instead, those brands are actually making their own choice as to what they want to stand for.”

That’s a remarkably dangerous mistake. Brands can no longer lazily assume that they’re taking on board customer feedback to define a brand. Dan Lewis of Molson Coors certainly thinks so:

“I think the biggest mistake – and maybe it’s the biggest shift for brands – is to set
aside a lot of the arrogance of the past, of being more knowledgeable about this brand than the consumer.”

Instead, marketers must understand that customer feedback better than ever before (discussed in depth in Chapter 7, “Data for Relevance and Agility”). They must build this customer view into every decision that’s made, and do so whether it tallies with previous strategy or not. This need to react and respond in a wide-ranging way to customer feedback and insight on what your brand means to them requires a fundamental restructuring of business to not only be closer to its customers, but more agile – and able to make the changes and react to the feedback that those customers provide.

Brand Is How a Company Acts As a Corporate Citizen

Customers are now more able to influence a company’s brand themselves. As such, the marketer’s role transitions from unilateral decision making on a brand’s future, and becomes more about influencing and evolving existing customer perceptions.

Given their somewhat “weaker” position, a sensible marketer must take seriously every opportunity to successfully influence that perception. As such, factors like corporate responsibility loom ever larger – and become increasingly important to a marketer grasping for any tool possible to influence a customer’s perception.

On a simple level, the perception of your brand is built by conversation with customers about what you do, not just what you sell.

Therefore, a company’s wider actions as a corporate citizen have extra weight attached to them. It would be dangerous for the Corporate Responsibility department and marketing departments to collaborate too frequently and work too closely – that sort of relationship tends to engender greenwashing (where a company’s actions as a corporate citizen are altered and polished to make them sound more impressive and wide-ranging by the marketing department). However, it is essential for the marketing team to understand that their remit is no longer limited to product messaging and customer engagement in the traditional sense. That remit must broaden quite considerably so that those marketing teams have an understanding – and maybe even oversight – of the many different influences that will impact on their role as steward of the company’s brand.
This isn’t all risk mitigation, of course. It means that there are now other differentiators available to the marketer – for instance, a company’s role as a corporate citizen. As Cammie Dunaway, CMO at KidZania, points out:

“The brand means much more to consumers than the packaging and the advertising. So what the brand is doing in the world really matters. For example, the stance that Coca-Cola is taking on access to clean water for consumers and on sustainable packaging – those efforts are building their brand credibility.

They become part of the information by which consumers decide whether the brand is something they want to associate with. So I think that the narrow, traditional view of brands as defined by their communications strategy is what no longer works.”

How Can Brand Storytelling Help?

In a world where brands must move beyond marketing messages and strive to deliver authenticity and an engaging brand story, marketers tend to find themselves aiming somewhat higher than traditional marketing methods allow. Rather than engagingly communicating the benefits of a product or service, marketers are now tasked with communicating a loftier, broader purpose. Old methods don’t work as well. Storytelling does.

The focus on telling stories rather than pushing messaging is scientifically proven, as Paul Zak discussed in Harvard Business Review. His work showed that

“to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative.”

As companies respond to changing customer expectations, marketers are attempting to communicate their brand as rather more than simply logos and packaging – and in so doing, building a broader, more relatable picture of the brand’s purpose and place in the world. Storytelling is an essential tool for this because, as Zak highlights:

“transcendent purpose is effectively communicated through stories.”

Equally, a focus on a story rather than specific messages works better in our fragmented landscape when searching for consistency and a pervasive message.

Brand storytelling represents a broadening of the original remit of marketers and communicators to communicate a brand’s mission, goals, and positioning.

It’s perhaps why 70% of marketers think storytelling is such an important element of their marketing strategy.

Indeed, good storytelling has a meaningful impact on every aspect of “ART” It is a critical element in delivering authentic marketing and an authentic brand. The choice of story and how it’s delivered speaks to relevance. And the extent to which that story pervades everything a company does helps brands strengthen in a more transparent age.

A drive from customers for a believable, consistent backstory for a brand has led to new tasks being added to the marketer’s To Do list. According to Andy Gibson, former Chief Marketing Officer at Bacardi, marketers must ensure that the brand story is disseminated everywhere possible:

“[Your brand story must be] present in the current marketing story, all being present in the shop, on the phone, in the event, in the ads, in earned media.”

It’s incumbent upon you, as a marketer, to build on the brand story to add depth and richness and to propagate it both internally and externally.

It’s about giving something for people to buy into and reasons to choose you over the competition. It’s about showing how your product is superior in many more ways than your competition is even talking about. It’s about adding differentiating factors. And it’s about ensuring that when the “surface” inevitably gets scratched, the gold goes all the way through – it’s not tin underneath.

Your brand story extends beyond your marketing campaign and defines your company holistically. People buy into that story, not your product. They are alienated when you don’t live up to that story, and they are increasingly loyal and passionate when you do. Customers have plenty of choice nowadays. Yours is not the only option. You want them to choose to associate with you, not the competition.

A leading example of brand storytelling success is Dove’s campaign for real beauty. Dove, Unilever’s brand, has one of the strongest and most clearly defined brand stories out there, centered on “real beauty” for women. Its advertising campaigns have abandoned the faux-science and aggressive catwalk strutting of their cosmetics rivals and replaced it with feel-good stories about women getting into showers to show off their natural glow.

Although it’s easy to be dismissive of the slight change (after all, Dove and its rivals are in competition to sell an ever-increasing range of beauty products to people who probably don’t need them all), it does work.

Dan Lewis, Chief Public Affairs Officer at Molson Coors, comments:

“I look at things like Dove’s campaign for real beauty and look at that as almost a CSR approach to engaging with consumers at an emotional level that no standard advertising model would provide.”

Dove has done a great job of moving beyond product messaging and tapping into a broader, deeper, more emotional topic – what Andy Gibson called passion platforms. This is something more than a marketing message; the campaign focuses on a belief that the company stands for, something deeper and more profound than simply “Our shower gel leads to softer skin.”

There has always been a need for this sort of thinking; it’s just that nowadays that need has gotten much more prevalent – and in the future, it will continue to shoot up the marketer’s to-do list.

This Isn’t a New Coat of Paint – It’s Deeper Than That

It’s easy to build up a brand story and dismiss your audiences’ capacity to find out that, once you scratch the surface, there’s nothing there and you’ve simply added an artisanal skin to a mass-produced product.

And that would be a great mistake. Customers, as we know, are driven increasingly by a search for authenticity. Equally, transparency is putting more a pressure on corporations. These two facts in combination mean that marketers have less ability to pull the wool over the eyes of their target demographic.

You’ve got to live your brand story, not just say you do. Dan Lewis has certainly noticed this in his work at Molson Coors:

“I think [customer] expectations of seeing more of that kind of engagement with their brand is just going to grow and grow, and that’s going to put a lot of pressure on those of us who develop content, do the storytelling, find ways to engage… to make the connection in a different way, as opposed to hitting them over the head with an ad.”

That’s why it’s so essential that your whole company buy in. We cover this in depth in Chapter 5 – “Getting Your House in Order: How Internal Buy-In Impacts External Marketing.”

How Can You Build Storytelling into Your Marketing Campaign?

The benefits – even the requirement – of building storytelling into a broader marketing strategy seem obvious. I’ve put together your To Do list – based on feedback from 16 Chief Marketing
Officers – if you’d like to begin to tell a story around your brand:

  1. Determine where your brand story will come from.
    The main lesson here? Don’t manufacture something from nothing. Pick something you’re already doing. This can be aspirational (a “campaign for real beauty”), it can be a legacy point (the rich history of Coors Banquet Beer), it can be based on sustainability and corporate responsibility (Coca-Cola’s work on clean water), or it can come from your employees (First Direct and customer service).
  2. Don’t tell it yourself.
    This is beyond marketing and communications. Your job is to accentuate a message that’s already out there and already being communicated. Twenty percent of marketers say customers have more power to define your brand than anyone else. Your employees are a good bet, too.
  3. Make sure you can tell it persuasively.
    If you’re going to ascribe the responsibility to tell the story to employees instead of the marketing and communications departments, you’ll need a different set of processes to sign off.
    You can’t strangle a story by running it past legal every time you have an opportunity to propagate it. You’ll need to do an internal communications job to ensure that your C-suite and legal departments are on board with employees – and customers – discussing this stuff freely.
  4. Ensure that this is for the long term.
    A brand story is most emphatically not a campaign with an end date. It’s far more wide-reaching than that. You need to plan further ahead and build foundations that last longer than any typical marketing campaign planning process you’ve done before. That means getting employee buy-in (which is why we talk not about creating a story, but about accentuating an existing one). This isn’t a paint job – it’s something people sign up for.
  5. Use the story with more than just your customer base.
    Your brand story will help engage and build morale with your workforce, too. Use it to do so.

The Battle Between Art and Science Isn’t Over Yet

The growing importance of storytelling raises an interesting counterpoint to our data-obsessed age.

Yes, in many ways, marketing is moving along the continuum away from art and toward science, but there is still an important role for emotion, and human connection to play. After all, however precise and automated marketing campaigns become, the target will always be a human.

Campaigns like Dove’s – broader, story based, and emotionally affecting – are the types of engagements customers will see a lot more of in the years ahead.

Consumers will respond better to them and, consequently, will expect more of the same. They will expect the brands they patronize to be able to deliver engagement like this.

And as Dan Lewis, Chief Public Affairs Officer at Molson Coors told us,
“That puts pressure on those who develop content and do that storytelling to make the connection in a different way, as opposed to hitting them over the head with an ad.”