Stories add to the humanity of brands. They help consumers think through and act upon a narrative that is fundamentally rooted in human truths. Stories generate empathy. We see ourselves in the tale. Or we see a side of ourselves. Or we see the ‘me’ that we would like to be. Without that narrative, everything is dominated by features, data and discounts.
Consumers compare offers and in so doing they inevitably compare stories. They look for how brands fit the story of their life that they are telling themselves. Sadly, the stories that brands tell often focus on the world as they see it. They are a narrative shaped around their history and their vision for the days ahead, and they take their reference from the thinking and planning that have taken place internally.
Inevitably in most sectors, the stories of market leaders dominate. These brands set the rules and the expectations and as such they can have an undue influence on the stories that their competitors tell. They decide the market norms for the industry. That’s frustrating if you have a different brand approach and if you don’t want to be labelled as just another participant with the same attitudes and limitations as your rivals.
A counter-story is a narrative that sets out an alternative perspective
If your brand is struggling to get its story told in the face of a highly articulate and motivated competitor with strong market presence and plenty of resources, simply trying to out-shout them is a waste of time. One option to seriously consider is generating a counter-story; a narrative that deliberately sets out an alternative perspective in the minds of the people you want to reach. Challenger brands are ideally placed to use this strategy: in so doing, they can put distance between themselves and an incumbent and introduce new expectations into the market that they are best placed to fulfil.
Avis did this with Hertz. By introducing the idea that they try harder, they implied that their competitor was complacent and slower to act. More recently, Uber did the same to taxis – tell the story of an alternative way get from A to B that struck at the heart of a long-presumed narrative (although their story has since hit reputational and regulatory hurdles that they have yet to overcome). Sir Richard Branson is the master of this strategy. He doesn’t introduce another offering into a market without contextualising it as a very different approach to the one that everyone has got used to. He uses counter-story to weave a tale of what could and should be.
Only a better story beats another story
Talking about this with Shawn Callahan, he made two excellent points. Firstly, he said, you can’t beat a story with facts, you can only beat it with a better story. So if a competitor has a better story, listing the facts of your product only makes their story stronger. And if you do decide to tell a counter-story, you can’t have one that is only a tiny bit better. You should aim to tell a story that is 10 times better and more compelling. This often means having to do something differently. Secondly, timing is everything in his view. Not only do you need a story to beat a story but the first counter-story has a distinct advantage in terms of effectiveness over any others that may be created.
While many challenger brands focus their battle on a nemesis, a counter-story doesn’t need to take its cue from, or act in response to, another player. In fact, focusing on a rival brand can block challengers from seeing what consumers are looking for because they are too busy trying to score points. That’s what happened in the war between Sega and Nintendo. They were so engaged in their own tit-for-tat that they overlooked the arrival and ascendance of Sony as a gaming force. Instead, the counter-story itself can focus on a manifesto-like articulation of what should be possible and the articulation of that future through a story told in social media, video, interviews, data, graphics, case studies and narrative to add depth, context, ownership and insight.
7 ways to craft a counter-story
- Challenge what everyone takes for granted. Explain why the status quo came to be this way and, possibly, who was influential in making that happen.
- Talk about why it must stop or change. Focus on what everyone stands to gain if that happens.
- Develop a narrative that revolves around your brand and that sets out an alternative to what has been the norm up until now. This will form the backbone of your counter-story strategy. Answer these six questions.
- Use personal experiences to bring the counter-story to life and to prove it will work.
- Offer simple ways to tell and spread the story – e.g. hashtags – and encourage people to do so.
- Incentivise people to try the alternative you are promoting – through free trials, money back guarantees, freemium models.
- Celebrate take-up as it happens. Show that there is inclination and momentum for change.
Photo of “Defining the Fleeing Retronym” taken by Derrick Tyson, sourced from Flickr