Using storytelling and brand values for real customer engagement

7 ideas to engage through storytelling

Those who tell stories rule the world” – Plato

campfireStorytelling – the buzz of 2012? I remember so many articles from last year, many great, claiming that 2012 was the year of brand storytelling. The power of those stories central to marketing dialogue.

Let’s remember first that storytelling isn’t new, using narrative to evoke emotion in people is central to clever advertising creative from decades ago.

It’s ‘digital’ and ‘direct’ marketing that has only more recently moved marketing too more of a science – and often a very lazy one at that – bypassing all the important learning of what it means to market to, and motivate, real people with unmet needs. It seems though that we’re all catching back on to the effectiveness of building stories through content and connecting with people, our consumers.

When your information is communicated in story form, it’s claimed that people relate and remember it better and that we’re affected by it more deeply. This is the latest science at least, results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story. Where evolutionists claim that the chemistry of our brains hasn’t changed in over 50,000 years, back then stories sparked emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, trust…), and that brain chemistry remains the case today. Until recently though we’ve only been able to speculate about evolution and story’s persuasive effects, now psychologists such as Green & Brock argue that fictional storytelling radically alters the way that information is processed by the human brain, that our guard is down.

In Peter Guber’s book ‘Tell To Win’, the idea is that using stories or narrative as construct for brand or product messages is a form of Trojan Horse, where the story is a delivery system for the storyteller’s agenda. The psychology and science goes that by helping people feel is they key, and that we’re more emotional than rational – that being central to shopping science (Paco Underhill, Martin Lindstom being key authors in that space) as well.

Brands are telling these stories right now, some better than others, across a number of different mediums – from packaging to video to visual and verbal content.

Engagement meets storytelling – the new buzz of 2013?

Research consultancy Latitude, released part 1 of a study, “The Future of Storytelling,” which identifies trends and audience attitudes about branded content. The tips Latitude provides on telling stories are the following:

  1. Immersion – Create an immersive experience through content that is delivered in multi-media and that is multi-sensory;
  2. Interactivity – Allow the consumer to become a part of your brand narrative;
  3. Integration – Ensure that there is coherence across the many touch-points; and
  4. Impact – Make it lead to real action

Seems like great advice? In 2013 we’re seeing the idea of interactivity and engagement come to the fore, enabling and encouraging people to do something. Makes good sense, but does that really build connection. I don’t think interacting alone with, for example liking a brand, or commenting on a piece of content, really means anything. Though logically an interaction is a low level signal, of some sort. Harvard Business Review (HBR), challenge the linear assumptions of storytelling, they ran a series of posts from a study that poo-poo’s some of the beliefs held by engagement evangelists…

  1. Myth #1: Most consumers want to have relationships with your brand. Turns out only 23% have some feeling that this may benefit them, and the perceived benefit is for discounts.
  2. Myth #2: Interactions build relationships. Only 13% of people cited frequent interactions with the brand as a reason for having a relationship. HBR say evidence is that brand values are more effective in building consumer relationship. So, to build relationships, start by clearly communicating your brand’s philosophy or higher purpose. The consumer decides if you’re there kind of company
  3. Myth #3: The more interaction the better. Without realising it, claim HBR, many marketers are only adding to the information bombardment consumers feel as they shop a category, reducing stickiness rather than enhancing it. Treat the attention you do win as precious.

Storytelling and user engagement can earn permission of course, but lasting engagement, we might agree probably not? The HBR piece too though, strays a little into linear assumptions, they claim that, for example, people fly with Southwest Airlines because they share the value of “democratization of air travel,” and other people will purchase Pedigree dog food because they share the value that “every dog deserves a loving home.” I think that sounds pretty far fetched, does that even sound like something you can imagine a pet owning friend even say that?

So with strong arguments for storytelling, engagement and brand values, what is the recipe to success with storytelling? I think it’s based on combining all of the above and remembering one crucial factor…

It’s always about them, not you

If we forget about marketing jargon (hard, I know!) around storytelling, engagement and brand values, marketing is relationship building on some level. That’s how loyalty is achieved beyond a Tesco ClubCard, right?

The answer is to give people what they want, whether that’s some easily accessible information on your website, features of your product and service, or creative content that echoes their own values. I believe the HBR notion of having strong brand values, that the business lives and breathes, must be actively communicated – but that the best way to do that is in story-telling through rich content. The story becomes the vehicle to communicate brand values that will resonate with the (right) customer. Those brand statements and values are not in place to make you feel great, they’re there to ensure that you’re delivering what your customer wants at every touch-point that they have with your brand.

Our 7 take-aways for effective story-telling

Story-telling is not a guarantee of marketing success – of course explore this for your brand, here’s our tips to help do that:

Your crafted story + authentic values = Engagement

  1. Brand values – take HBR’s point first – what is your brand about and who for? Define and embrace what’s true about your brand, and make sure you can back up the stories and philosophy you put forth.
  2. Create meaning – don’t just give me raw information and data, apply your brand values so that is has value, interest and mending for me. Develop the narrative, include captivating imagery. Why else do strong info graphics and video explainers work so well.
  3. Motivate people – Stories can motivate people towards your goal, they can simplify decisions through clarity and understanding. I immediately think of Steve Jobs’ Apple presentations – story-telling art?
  4. Bake sharing in – Seth Godin talks about stories are easily shared, we can repeat them to each other. People do not repeat your product benefits to each other – they tell stories of benefits and applications to each other. Make your stories easy to share for effective social media marketing.
  5. Craft the irresistible truth – this does not happen over night, it takes time to develop. Using brand narrative or stories is sound, but only if it’s grounded in an own-able truth that sets you apart, otherwise the brand is weak, and its impact will be weak. Real brand storytelling builds a strong brand; the opposite will result in only a fleeting sense of community, a transient fan.
  6. Brand experiences – How can you include people in your story, let them evolve or become a part of it, the recent Lynx Apollo campaign springs to mind. Open up great experiences for people to get involved in order they leave you feeling something.
  7. Long term over short term – It’s hopefully obvious that this is a ‘get out what you put in’ thing. This isn’t an ‘SEO programme’ or a display ad campaign. Integrated and considered programmes of effort and strong online platforms are in investment to build the brand, over short campaigns designed to ‘engage’

While the transition from direct to digital media has drive a real focus toward rich content, the caution is that today, with ever more social tools and communication media, there’s a need for cohesive, cross-platform and meaningful connections in a marketing world that is ‘always on’. It requires more of brand communication. This is where your story-telling matters. Create strong, brand touch-points across web, packaging, video, textual and verbal content. Your marketing role is increasingly less about directing and more about curating that consumer journey.

As ever, please share your ideas in the comments below…

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