Brand storytelling has undergone an evolution in the years since it first entered the marketing lexicon.
At first, brand storytelling was something brands did to set themselves apart. Sharing the story behind your company gave you a mark of distinction – it let customers know that you took pride in being transparent, open, and honest about who you were and how you worked.
Today, this kind of transparency isn’t something that will set you apart. It’s become the norm. Storytelling has become the necessary basis for the way companies brand themselves, and as more companies have embraced this model, the modes, methods, and norms of brand storytelling have evolved.
So where are we now, in 2018, as brand storytellers? How has storytelling changed in the wake of the rise of the connected consumer?
Effective brand storytelling today is holistic and comprehensive.
In years past, some brands could get away with being excellent storytellers on their Instagram feeds, but still having an opaque or uninteresting website. That’s no longer the case.
Today, your brand’s story must be baked into every aspect of how your company interacts with its customers. Otherwise, you run the risk of coming across as inauthentic.
Toms Shoes is one of the masters of brand storytelling and a familiar brand to anyone in marketing. Their mission of “One for One,” or giving equivalently to what their customers are purchasing, is an integral part of the company – and they share that openly and liberally both on the web and in their stores.
The above screenshot is from their homepage, and you can see immediately how their mission of giving is also their product – with a line of shoes featuring ocean designs, Toms is supporting a marine advocacy organization.
They’ve also extended this seamless storytelling experience to their flagship retail store in Los Angeles. In 2015, they debuted the Toms Virtual Giving Trip, which allowed customers to take a seat, don a VR headset, and go along with a Toms giving team as they distributed shoes in Peru.
Not every company has a story and mission that’s as easy to define as Toms.
But every company can learn something from this giant in the corporate responsibility and philanthropy world: be proud of your story. Share it widely. Integrate it into every aspect of your work and your presence – not just online, but offline too.
This is where a crucial distinction must be made between traditional brand storytelling and that which aims to capture the connected consumer.
Connected consumers have to feel your story in your offline interactions, whether those occur in a brick-and-mortar store, in your office, or at an event you’re hosting. Brand storytelling that isn’t holistic will be ineffective, at best, and viewed as inauthentic, at worst.
Brands must soul-search and commit to authenticity more than ever.
What if you don’t truly know your brand’s story? Maybe you know your company’s mission and values, maybe you feel like you could describe the culture – but you don’t know how to distill that into a coherent, compelling story.
You’re far from alone. There are companies in all industries, of all sizes, that are still struggling to figure out what story to tell about themselves.
What’s positive about brand storytelling in the age of the connected consumer, however, is that there are lots of excellent examples (like Toms, but also massive companies like Ford, and B2B companies like GE) that brands can look to for help. There are case studies you can read to get ideas on what’s worked well and what hasn’t for other brands.
However, while all this information is certainly helpful, it’s no substitute for doing your own brand soul-searching.
This is something that should be done collaboratively, with your entire executive team if possible – this way, you’ll not only be benefiting from each team member’s perspective, but also from their history with the company. Executives who’ve spent many years at the company may have salient memories of the organization at its beginnings, or of a pivotal shift that marked a milestone in the company’s development. These things could be of great help in bringing your brand’s story into focus.
Likewise, executives who have only recently joined the company will bring with them their own fresh perspectives on what the company stands for, what the most striking features of company culture are, and where the company is headed in the future.
Taken together, these memories, ideas, and perspectives can give you the raw material for constructing your brand’s authentic story and history.
Brands must embrace the truth that their story doesn’t only belong to them.
Authors, artists, product designers – in short, anyone who creates – all know that once you’ve made something and shared it with the world, it’s no longer just yours.
The same is true of your brand’s story. Once you’ve constructed it and begun putting it out to your consumers, through social media, blog posts, or offline events, your customers also have a stake in writing it.
What they think, feel, and believe about your brand will, inevitably, become part of your brand itself. This can be – and usually is – a hugely positive thing. If you’ve articulated your values and who you are clearly, your customers’ part in building your story will only enhance what you’ve already created.
If for some reason, what your customers bring to your story is not in line with your values, you’re getting a signal that something isn’t communicating clearly.
And while it can be uncomfortable, even frightening, to see your story changing in ways that you have no control over, the best reaction is always one that’s thought out and measured. Acting with speed will do you no good if the action you take is sloppy.
When you do react, think about how you’d react to a negative review or a negative comment on social media. You wouldn’t get defensive. Instead, you’d try to see how the problem arose and what you can do to help right the situation.
The same is applicable to a brand story that is becoming something you never intended. While it is important that you regain control of your narrative, it’s also important that you acknowledge the reasons for whatever occurred and express the ways in which you are actively working to better communicate your company’s values, or how you’ll try to avoid future misunderstandings, etc.
Brand storytelling in the age of the connected consumer is more complex, vibrant, and multi-layered than it’s ever been before. The brands that can interweave their stories into every facet of their customer’s experience will be the ones that thrive in this new iteration of the digital age.