Marketers often talk about story as if it is one thing. But brands with multiple stakeholders need to cater for different responses and priorities by streaming a range of stories to a range of audiences at different times. The reason is simple. The things that make a brand attractive in one context are different from what they might be in another context. Inclination changes, sometimes markedly, depending upon what people value.
For example, just because someone will buy from you doesn’t mean they’ll invest with you. And vice versa. Judging these to be very different audiences with very different interests and needs, companies have tended to separate – indeed silo – these stories and how they are told. The investment story has been put in the hands of the investor relations people; the brand story has been managed by the marketing team; culture has been the domain of HR. Each has presented their interpretation of what is important.
A more rounded view through story
But there’s an opportunity here that I think is being missed – brands could leverage their stories more effectively and efficiently to present a more rounded view of who they are and what they offer. They could and should tell all their stories more cohesively. In his 2006 book Balanced Brand, John Foley discusses how companies need to align not just their own corporate values but also those of a significant range of stakeholders. As he rightly points out, bad things can happen to brands and their reputations when stakeholders who have not been adversely affected themselves nevertheless believe their values have been impinged by a brand’s behaviours.
Indeed, if they are to stream all their stories effectively, brands need to not only identify the different story streams (and who they appeal to) but also look for common reference points. Achieving equilibrium requires enough uniformity across the different streams to provide consistency whilst at the same time making each story stream specific and credible in its own right.
6 streams of story
- Product – the story of what you sell is the story to consumers of why they should love what you offer. This story focuses on desirability and distinction. It explains why your products or services should receive priority of pocket and loyalty over rivals.
- Leadership – the story of how and where you lead is often circulated through the media and addresses influence, attention and innovation. Brands with strong leadership stories are newsworthy and interesting because they are the opinion makers. These are the brands breaking stories that turn heads their way.
- Culture – this is the story of how you work. It spells out what all your people agree on and where you are going together. At its best, this story inspires and guides sometimes vast numbers of people spread across huge areas to work together in ways that are galvanising and rewarding.
- Community – the story of who you choose to interact with and what you choose to converse with them about. Every brand works with a range of communities – through its various sponsorships, philanthropic activities and online – and each community must see within that story aspects that are specific and important to them. The choice of communities and the nature of the interaction speak volumes.
- Ethics – the story of how you work. Reputation is now dependent on more factors than ever. Ethics has tended to encompass environmental impacts and supply chain integrity, but the criteria are widening to now include diversity and safety. These are important storylines for regulators and government.
- Investment – this is the story of how you are funded and what you return. The emphasis of the story will depend on how you are owned (publicly listed, private equity, VC, private ownership) because the story needs to revolve around the performance and reporting expectations of investors.
To be fair, there has been greater amalgamation of story streams in recent times. Brands increasingly recognise that they need to tell their story from the inside out – meaning they need to have their culture aligned with their intentions and agreed on behaviours before they make significant changes to their offerings. In the search for talent, brands have also linked their credentials as a good employer to their initiatives as a “good citizen”. Companies are now tending to incorporate more and more community and ethical aspects into the stories they exchange with investors.
But there are greater opportunities I believe to develop strong individual strands and bring these together in differing combinations. It seems to make sense for example to explain to investors how developing ground-breaking opinions (leadership) as a brand can literally pay dividends for them. It also makes sense that investors might want to pay closer attention to how the culture is being motivated to lift performance.
There’s also situations where the overall brand reputation could be upgraded by telling more of the product stories. Those stories could then be sync’d back to provide deeper, more nuanced perspectives for the brand overall.
Having multiple storylines is about treating the brand as an interdependent ecosystem
Finding new and bold ways to connect the competitive, the altruistic, the ambitious, the social, the collective and the financial stories of a brand is really about treating the brand as an interdependent ecosystem; one that is perceptually independent of the way it is organised in terms of corporate structure. Such an approach reconciles and balances the priorities of different stakeholders with potentially very different agendas, providing a wider and richer context for conversation, opinion exchange and decision making. Most interestingly of all, it opens up the opportunity for previously unrelated storylines to work more closely together and therefore for brands to tell fuller stories overall.