How do you win as a brand in a world where products are more and more alike, where distribution systems are efficient and far-reaching, where everyone has a “story” and is telling it across multiple channels? If you can’t win on quality, efficiency, timeliness or narrative—or at the very least, you can’t hold any advantage you do have for long—how do you carve out a place for yourself in crowded and converging marketplaces?
The brands that are winning are not those that are telling or selling, but rather those that are finding powerful and personal ways to connect. By first building affinity and inclination and then using product, distribution and storytelling to strengthen and tighten those bonds, these connective brands are essentially reversing the traditional relationship equation. They first link with people to instill belief in the company, then draw on social media and story lines to involve and include people, and finally they look to distribution and product to deliver experiences and products.
The camera company GoPro has built a fiercely loyal brand community by advocating for personal heroism—by calling on people to get out into the world and push themselves to the limit. The fascination with that idea and where it could take them is what binds all these people together. They connect through that love of, and thirst for, a more exciting life. Each person yearns at some level to be a hero in their own way. Go Pro’s videos, social media feeds and stories then celebrate, through capture, what happens when ordinary people do exactly that: base jump off sheer cliffs; ski in extraordinary environments; climb icebergs; brave mountainous seas. The stories endorse the belief in exploring possibilities. They bring it to life.
All of this in turn changes the relationship that people have with GoPro’s cameras. The products become the ways that people join in: They are the entry ticket to the wider community. If GoPro had used a more traditional marketing technique, they would have found themselves pitching their camera against every other camera in the world. Inevitably they would have become embroiled in a feature vs. feature race to nowhere. But by using a richly emotive idea with universal appeal as their platform, the stories become the living proof of what’s possible for those looking for reasons to get involved. They act as the bridge between belief and buy.
It’s tempting to look at a brand like GoPro and think that while this approach may work for them, it probably won’t work for brands focused on less exciting aspects of life. However, what companies like Unilever are proving is that when you involve people in a cause to change the world that they value, then loyalty to the brands in their portfolio increases. Unilever’s Project Sunlight, for example, is “a new initiative to motivate millions of people to adopt more sustainable lifestyles.” Unilever’s brands are household goods, but by linking them directly to a global push for change, they have in turn transformed the stories they can tell as well as how the stories are received.
Not all content is storytelling
There’s a cautionary tale here for all those who believe that a story is a story and any story will do. With demand for content so high today, brand and marketing managers can quickly be drawn into supplying editorial almost for the sake of it. There’s a tendency to assume that all content making is storytelling and that having a content strategy, and filling your editorial calendar faster and more regularly than rivals, will gain your brand presence, profile and loyalty. That approach may well gain you presence and profile, at least in the search engines, but it’s not storytelling in the sense that I’m talking about here.
Stories have structures. They are journeys. They require tensions and conflicts, twists and turns to make them interesting. They resolve. They work for those reading and changing because they draw people in and make the journeys feel so much more immediate. The searches become personal. Content doesn’t do that. Content states or it argues or it informs or it reveals. It lacks the “arc” inherent in strong storytelling. Don’t get me wrong—there is absolutely a need and a place for content. It’s just not a synonym of story.
The stories that cut through, the ones that actually work, are the stories that support and connect with what a group of people believe in or want to believe in. Empty stories, non-stories, by contrast, are the new noise.
Focus your storytelling
So if you’re responsible for brand storytelling in your organization, here are nine things to be thinking about if you’re committed to telling stories that truly connect:
- What bigger idea can the stories you want to tell link to? What should people understand about you from the stories you tell and celebrate?
- Why is that belief competitive? How does it differ from what others believe?
- Who does that belief connect with—and is that a commercially viable community?
- How can the stories you share continue to entice all sorts of people to join you in that belief? What do the stories prove to them?
- What connects the viewer/reader to each story? Do they identify with the struggle and with the triumph?
- Where does that story take them? And where can it go next?
- Can they add their own stories to your stories? How will that make all the stories richer? How will it strengthen the belief you all agree on?
- How does what you offer tie into the story? What’s its contribution?
- Are there strong, interesting and evolving connections between the belief (the search), the story (the way) and the product (the means)?