I really like Ed Woodcock’s description of what it takes to build a fascinating brand story. Creativity, resonance and purpose are all key attributes of successful brand storytelling strategy, he observes, in a recent piece on top storytelling brands. It’s fascinating to observe how those characteristics are playing out across the economy.
In the Marketing Week survey, tech companies dominate the brands that people are most intrigued by, whilst not-for-profits have firmly established themselves in the minds of consumers as the articulation, literally, of vision and purpose. Both shifts have come at the expense of CPG brands, particularly food, and also supermarkets who are struggling with growth and under increasing pressure to tell stories that consumers engage with.
An eclipse of interest
That correlation of diminishing growth and increasingly hard-to-tell stories feels like more than a coincidence. It suggests that the brands that once dominated our daily routines through our sheer need to interact with them are being eclipsed by the tech brands that now drive our lives, relationships and personal networks like never before. The resonance that food and supermarkets once had, as of right, is fading.
Instead, the creativity of tech – the sector’s ability to reinvent how we connect and what we do with our time – is platforming them as the next generation of storytellers. Our life narratives as consumers, it seems, are being defined more and more by what we choose to do, celebrate and share with those around us.
Not-for-profits too have used a clear sense of vision and purpose to position themselves as significant and interesting in today’s world. Their rise in relevance, I would suggest, also revolves around their role in championing change, and in giving people opportunities to do something meaningful. Contrast their success though with the fate of other life ‘necessities’, such as financial services and utilities, that continue to struggle to tell stories that people generally care about. Banking and energy for example should be fascinating. They should tell deeply human stories. They don’t.
Storytelling beyond the obvious
The critical take-out for brands rethinking their storytelling strategy is not just that it is hard to get people’s attention, but that the business that many marketers see as a core activity, building perceptions, must increasingly be framed in ways that talk to the shifts in what interests consumers. Brands must be seen as more creative, more intriguing and more aware not just than their competitors but than everything else that bombards people on a daily basis.
The world is full of products and facts. And too many brands, it would seem, are guilty of restating the obvious. I’m not sure that every brand needs to possess all three attributes to persuade, but I am certain that simply trotting out re-interpretations of the product sheet leaves brands with less and less to say that is of interest. That’s particularly true if you want to excel at business storytelling.
Your story needs to be about the journey towards the world that you advocate for.
If you lead a significant brand today, the story you need to tell the world must reflect who you are but extend far beyond what you do. The perceptions you create will be decided by the relevance you show. And the relevance you show will be substantiated by the impacts that you have for the consumer and beyond. Your story, in other words, needs to be about the journey towards the world that you advocate for. And, as my interview with Shawn Callahan reveals, that need to substantiate impacts is equally important for brand cultures, using the big power of little stories.
Four thoughts on how to create a powerful brand storytelling strategy
- Take customers beyond their realities. They already know what a bargain looks like. They know what a sale looks like. They also know what the shop looks like. They are surrounded by these things every day. Take them somewhere they haven’t been or wouldn’t go normally but that they can instinctively relate to. The Guinness wheel chair ad is a case in point.
- Express what you do in new ways. The genius of the Jetman videos for Dubai and Emirates is that you literally see the airline and its country of origin in a new light. By fusing the excitement and daring of the Jetman aviators with the biggest passenger airliner in the world and the landscapes of desert and city, freedom takes on a whole new point of view. Then, if you think that’s cool, watch the documentary of how they told the story. It’s a great example of building a strong brand backstory.
- Don’t just be successful. Tell me what you’re succeeding at. This is one of the missing opportunities in my view. What is the impact for buyers and others in what you are doing, and why would that encourage those who don’t buy from you yet to start doing so? What do they get to be part of by doing so? There’s an opportunity here that needs to stretch beyond CSR to what happens in, and for, the world when the brand does its work well.
- Tell me a story of hope, small or epic. Banks and utilities need to find ways of expressing their contributions that feel less self-aggrandising. While everyone wants to think their work is important and that it matters, the brutal reality is that most brands don’t matter to most consumers. The clear learning from the Marketing Week survey is that banks and utilities, amongst others, don’t mean enough to warrant attention. I suspect the reason they fail to be attractive is that they haven’t made what they do approachable, or framed the difference they make in ways that feel tangible enough. They haven’t projected their place in the world and in the world’s economies in manners that people warm to. They will continue to struggle to engage in my view until they can find ways to inspire.
We certainly live in a world filling with stories. But that doesn’t mean for one moment that simply telling a story will make you a fascinating brand. Remember, as you craft your brand storytelling strategy that stories aren’t defined by the teller. In the end, their success is decided by the listener and the watcher. Persuasion happens through interest not by repetition these days. So who’s leaning in to hear more from you? And how will your story position you to deliver more of what they are interested in seeing happen?