“What I find remarkable is that so many people have more trust in what they read from total strangers than what companies tell them. That shows us that brands need to win back the trust of consumers.”
Dave Elzinga, McKinsey & Co.
“The business of business is business.”
We tell each other stories every day. We tell our spouses how our day went, we recount to our friends a funny joke we heard earlier, and we share an anecdote with a colleague to pass the time at the coffee maker.
Brands try to do the same thing, but on a much larger scale. In this post, I want to break down brand storytelling in three parts, each part trying to answer one of the following questions:
- What is storytelling and why is brand storytelling different from every other marketing tactic?
- Does storytelling actually bring customers closer to a brand and result in more sales?
- How can marketing teams create stories without funding a multi-million-dollar ad buy?
Part 1: What Is Storytelling?
You’re probably aware of the rule that every story has to have a beginning, middle, and end. But what does that actually mean?
After all, everything has a beginning, middle, and end, from college to your first love to life itself. So a story has to mean more than that, right?
A story is all about change. To be a story, a character has to go through a significant change and development. This is often called the “character arc.” The important thing to note here is that a character cannot be forced to change by outside agents. Moreover, a character arc is not simply the change to a character’s place, job, or financial state.
For example, let’s say we’re writing a story about a poor, destitute character who suddenly inherits a million dollars from an estranged dead relative. If we stop right there, we see that the character’s position has changed, but that’s not the same thing as a true arc.
No, to truly change, a character must make choices that lead to a change. So if our new millionaire character chooses to abandon his old friends after inheriting money, he has begun to change—for the worst albeit. As the story goes on, perhaps he learns the meaning of friendship and the value of money and chooses to abandon his fortune and return to his old friendships.
What’s interesting about this story is two-fold. One, the character, through the arc of the story, is forced to make decisions that change who he is. And two, while the character himself has changed dramatically, his physical circumstances haven’t. He’s still poor, but his attitude toward his poverty is turned upside down and he is better for it.
As you develop your brand’s story, you have to put your characters (e.g., your brand) into situations that force them to make choices of true, authentic change.
Time for an example? I think so.
Home Instead Senior Care provides in-home care for seniors, a viable alternative for those who do not wish to move into an assisted living facility. Here’s a story promoting its brand and services.
You can see why this story works. The video puts you squarely behind the aging father’s eyes—you see what he fears and the reluctance he feels about leaving his home. You experience the change in his understanding along with him. We all discover together that he has an option to stay in the home together. And, most importantly for the purposes of this video, you realize the importance of Home Instead’s mission.
That’s powerful, authentic storytelling.
Brand Stories vs. Gimmicks
Why is brand storytelling different from every other marketing tactic?
We’ve already stated that to be successful a story must force its characters to make decisions that change them (for good or bad, but since we’re talking about brands, you’ll want to keep your stories uplifting; remember, advertising is about happiness).
So what’s the opposite of a story? A gimmick.
A gimmick is an attention grabber. A gimmick makes us stop and stare. Now, some of the best stories are those that grab our attention right away either by being outrageous, using celebrities, or literally using bright lights and loud sounds.
But the similarities between a story and a gimmick stop there. A gimmick waves its arms around, shouting at the top of its lungs for you to pay attention, but when you walk over to see what all the noise is about, you find there really is nothing going on beyond the noise.
Gimmicks are all fluff and no substance. Gimmicks are superficial ploys with short-term goals. A gimmick won’t stick with you; it won’t lodge itself in your subconscious. A gimmick is not authentic, and it most certainly doesn’t change you.
The more innocuous gimmicks are no more than the local big sales event commercials that use explosive graphics to make you look up for half a second from your phone just long enough to hear to the brand’s name.
But there are more pernicious gimmicks that manipulate and deceive. In Katie Martell’s “The Hypocrisy of Femvertising” she calls out brands like Audi, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble for all creating women-empowered videos and commercials, while at the same time keeping women off their boards and getting sued for underpaying women.
Looks good in theory:
But what about this? Unilever owns both Dove and Axe…
So while the stories these companies have created may be on paper perfect examples of character arc, change, and choices, they’re not stories that exemplify who the brand is. They’re not authentic to the brand’s core values.
And that’s key to storytelling. Brand storytelling has to go further than just textbook-based structures and formulas. A brand must first create its authentic story internally.
Even the best stories told by brands won’t leave a lasting impression if the brand itself does not make choices that result in positive change. Storytelling for the sake of storytelling is the worst type of gimmick.
Part 2: Brand Storytelling That Sells
Now let’s turn to the second of the three questions I’m setting out to answer: Does storytelling actually bring customers closer to a brand and result in more sales?
Blake Mycoskie traveled to Argentina to momentarily escape the stress and insanity of running his fourth startup. What he found were children who needed shoes. And then he found his fifth startup.
You know the Toms Shoes model: For every pair of shoes you buy, the company gives a pair to a child in need. And it’s grown beyond shoes since the company’s founding.
But the story remains intact. The story is not a marketing gimmick. It’s central to the Toms brand identity. The name Toms literally comes from Mycoskie’s promise: Sell a pair today, give a pair tomorrow.
That ingrained story is one that resonates with customers because they’re not just buying from a company, they buying into a company too.
But you don’t have to take my word for it.
In the first year of Toms opening, the company sold (and then gave away) 10,000 pairs of shoes. The company has been valued at $625 million dollars.
Patagonia is a 45-year-old company that has never lost its core values. The company’s founder Yvon Chouinard set out to create clothing for rock climbers but discovered that a company can do more than maximize its profits (sorry, Friedman).
The company’s love for the outdoors seeps into everything it does, and that’s why it focuses heavily on minimizing its impact on the environment. It uses recycled nylon and polyester fabrics. It’s also working to get 100% of its products to be Fair Trade Certified.
From its mission statement:
“We know that our business activity–from lighting stores to dyeing shirts–creates pollution as a by-product. So we work steadily to reduce those harms.”
When you start with solid values, it’s easy to translate that into a message that resonates with your customers. Customers who share those values will not only buy Patagonia’s products, they’ll also become loyal, lifelong customers.
This is best demonstrated in the following video, where Patagonia profiles a customer whose Patagonia products are not just recreational and stylish, but they also imbibe the personality, past, and passion of their owner.
Beyond the Viral Video
Storytelling is not just about creating a viral video that everyone can’t stop talking about. No doubt if you produced one for your company, you’d get a lot of slaps on the back and maybe even a bonus come December.
But a viral video for the sake of it isn’t worth much in my opinion. You wouldn’t be creating anything of lasting value. And when it comes to designing your brand, you should aim to build something long-term, something people will align with today, tomorrow, and beyond.
To create an authentic brand story, you have to be able to tell your story all the time—not just when the cameras are on.
Your brand story must be so entrenched in your company’s values that the story takes on a life of its own. Your story should be visible in the employees you hire, in the customers you sell to, and in the partners you work with. It should affect your business from the strategic decisions you make to your supply chain.
When your story is vital to your brand’s DNA, your customers will respond in kind.
Part 3: Creating Your Own Brand Story
This takes to the final question I want to asnwer: How can marketing teams create stories without funding a multi-million dollar ad buy?
Despite what that question may imply, this part is not going to be about content formats, Instagram versus Snapchat, or other tips on actually creating the end product.
Instead, I want to take a step back and just look at what a company must be in order to tell a good story in the first place. I wrote earlier that if you’re creating stories just to create stories, that’s actually a gimmick.
Before you can develop a story that matters and that’s legitimate and not full of hypocrisy, we need to ensure your brand has a central, cohesive brand identity.
The 3 Pillars Required for Every Powerful Brand Strategy
Your brand identity cannot be manufactured, manipulated, or rushed. It must be cultivated, refined, and realized in every action your company takes.
To ensure your identity is authentic and honest, I’ve listed out four strategies to develop one.
1. Ensure your brand identity is a culture identity.
A brand must begin within the company. It can’t be something only the marketing team is aware of so that they can create clever taglines and bombastic promotions. Moreover, it can’t be something that’s driven from the top-down only.
There are several ways to go about this, including:
- Onboard new hires with a corporate culture presentation.
- Repeat your core identity values whenever you can: at town hall meetings, employee reviews, corporate events and parties, etc.
- Reward those who exemplify your values or go beyond the call of duty.
- Hire people who not only bring the right experience and expertise but who also share your values.
- Terminate those who violate your values. It’s blunt but necessary. Keeping employees, even exceptionally skillful ones, who don’t adhere to the brand’s identity is only going to hurt you in the long run.
These are useful tactics and are definitely recommended, but they assume you’ve already identified your identity. If you’re just starting off, you need to establish who your brand is, and you shouldn’t do it alone.
Take for example the Indian pharmaceutical company Dr. Reddy’s, whose brand identity “Good health can’t wait” didn’t come from some executive-only brainstorm meeting, but came instead from the employees themselves.
As profiled in HBR, the CEO of Dr. Reddy’ G.V. Prasad and his team interviewed employees—from “shop floor workers to scientists”—understanding what purpose they thought the company should aim for. From their research, they uncovered their identity. Because the identity was authentically derived and not a corporate mandate, the new brand became a movement for its executives, its employees, and its end users.
“People are more apt to support what they have a stake in creating.”
A business is a team, after all, working toward a common goal. Your brand’s identity is a reflection of your team, and therefore it’s vital they have a say in what that identity looks like.
2. Write your identity down.
It’s a simple task but vital. When you write things down, you’re not just codifying your ideas; you’re discovering what they truly are.
Think of Jerry Maguire, staying up all night to write the infamous “mission statement.” The more and more he wrote, the more he understood who he wanted to be and what kind of company he wanted to build. (For the purposes of this piece, we’ll skip over the consequences of that mission statement.)
“It’s Not a Memo!”
And despite the reference, I’m not talking about a mission statement like the ones posted on the about page on a company website. Those are public words that some stuffy executives think customers want to read. They don’t.
The brand identity you write down should be an internal document, used to guide your team, your creativity, your products…everything.
Write it down, make it real, and make sure everyone in your company knows it.
3. Lead by example.
Employees look to leadership for guidance—either consciously or subconsciously. How a leader treats their employees, treats their customers, treats their partners…it impacts how the employees behave.
A former employer of mine would regularly dismiss another executive’s opinion or ideas in front of us. After months of this, the staff began to lose respect for the belittled executive, and I even heard the same derisive quips once uttered by the employer echoed by my colleagues to new employees during training. The cycle continued until the executive had enough and quit.
And with regard to the hypocrisy we found in the “femvertising” world, if you’re going to ride a trend or movement for marketing purposes, you better put your money where your mouth is. If your identity involves inclusivity, you must do everything you can to fulfill that idea.
Leaders are burdened with the task of setting the standards for the rest of the team. You must be willing to take on that responsibility, or you may find yourself unfit for a leadership role.
4. Be a solutions provider instead of a product maker.
Once you know what kind of brand you want to be and the ideals you wish to achieve, you can look at your services, products, and offerings as solutions that fulfill your values.
I’ve written about this in the past, but a successful company has to be more than a product maker. It has to be a solutions provider. A lumber company isn’t in the building materials industry; it’s in the home improvement industry.
The difference may be subtle, but its impact is huge. Especially if, through the company’s values, home improvement translates to helping people build a safe place for their family.
This shift to a solutions-based company means that instead of focusing on how cheaply you can produce and sell drill bits, you also focus on developing services that meet the goal of helping customers build that safe place.
For example, Home Depot announced in July to its customers that it intends to enter the home decor space. Instead of limiting itself to one type of home improvement need, it’s extending its product line to help families build, maintain, and decorate their homes.
A brand without an authentic identity will not be prepared to shift and adapt to market changes. That’s why companies like Kodak, Blockbuster, and Sears failed.
Conclusion: Creating Change
When I started this storytelling piece, I began by talking about change. Storytelling is fundamentally about change. We enjoy stories because we want to see how characters face challenges, what choices they make, and how challenges and choices ultimately change them.
Without change, there’s no story.
So how do we take this post and activate change for your brand?
The change you’re hoping to develop in your story is centered on your customers. You must tell stories that inspire them to change—ideally to become loyal, lifelong customers.
But you can only do that when you’ve decided who you are as a brand. You have to provide direction for your customers’ character arc. You want your customers to aspire to the identity of your brand.
But here’s the rub: The identity you create must be one worth aspiring to. A one-dimensional identity is as boring as a flat character in a book. We’ve seen it before. There’s nothing unique there. It’s lazy writing, so to speak.
Build an identity worth remembering. One that connects your employees as well as your customers. Add to this world; don’t just be part of it.
As we close out this topic (for now), I’ll leave you with one final example. It’s from State Farm, whose tagline as you probably know is “Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There.” The company’s brand is wrapped up in this “good neighbor” identity, which is something aspirational and poignant.
In the spirit of that identity, State Farm created a series of videos called “Neighborhood of Good,” in which they profile people being good neighbors.
Here’s a video from January entitled “Strands of Magic.”