What used to be one voice telling a story from start to finish is now a zillion voices talking to each other at any given time, altering the storyline as they go along. Storytelling in this dynamic environment can be compared to improvisational theater, as opposed to traditional theater with a passive audience (Singh and Sonneburg, 2012). Everyone participates in creating the story, the roles of narrator and spectator keep shifting and the original sender can no longer decide or even predict the outcome.
Sounds challenging? It is, but companies who learn how to master this have a lot to gain. Research shows that eight out of ten consumers want their brand to tell stories, preferably about regular people and/or consumers (Headstream, 2015). A captivating and relatable story adds meaning, evokes emotions and allows the audience to relate on a personal level (Singh and Sonneburg, 2012).
If you manage to grasp your audience’s attention with fun or thought-provoking content, they are more likely to enter the conversation, express their feelings and share it with their friends. The result is co-created content driven by all participants, where your brand promise is interpreted and adopted on a deeper level (Barwise and Meehan, 2010).
Create tension – and manage it well
For your audience to actively take part, you need to create tension. This is done by challenging your audience on an emotional level. When Dove launched its Real Beauty campaign, questioning the unrealistic stereotype of female beauty, it resonated with many women who shared Dove’s content, joined the discussion and helped spread the brand story.
This tension must however be managed carefully, since losing control of it can hurt your brand. You need to be consistent, or the message may be distorted. The same Dove campaign was hijacked and ridiculed by the audience when Unilever launched a campaign for another of its brands, Axe, sending a very contradicting message (Singh and Sonneburg, 2012).
On the other hand, companies who manage to stay true to their brand and to what they promise have everything to gain from their reputation being amplified through social media (Barwise and Meehan, 2010).
Help your audience tell their stories
One way of driving brand engagement is to help your audience connect to each other. Whereas this was made through events, like Harley Davidson’s Harley Posse Ride, it is now happening online. Proctor & Gamble’s (Always) Beinggirl community is targeted at young girls who wish to exchange experiences. At the same time it provides the company with useful insights in the consumers’ world (Barwise and Meehan, 2010). Another early example is Scania’s Kingsclub, where Swedish drivers and fans share experiences and ideas around their trucks. (http://kingsclub.se/site/)
Boast about your legacy
If this seems overwhelming, you can start by leveraging the compelling content you already have at hand: your corporate history. And it does not have to date back to the 19th century; even young companies have founders and roots to talk about. By treating your legacy as a key success factor you show that you have delivered what you promise for a long time. What greater way to gain trustworthiness?
A story is not really engaging unless we discover something about ourselves. Define what your company really stands for and what role you play in society. The 165-year-old Levi Strauss brand spreads its archived content online on the corporate website and a separate blog, celebrating “the birth of the blue jean” with vintage photos and posts on the products’ impact on people’s lives. (http://www.levistrauss.com/unzipped-blog/)
Be transparent and celebrate the people behind your success. Allow all history buffs out there to dig into your archives. Associated Press hosts the AP Explore site, which honors defining news stories and the journalists who reported on them. (https://www.ap.org/explore/) The history section on the Coca Cola web site features old ads, collectibles and memorable Coca Cola moments written by fans. (http://www.coca-colacompany.com/history)
Be creative and make the most of what you have. When J.R Watkins, a company selling hygiene and remedy products, wanted to reach a new generation it decided to “resurrect” its founder on Instagram, where users could place his ghostly cameo in their pictures and get his advice on what product to use.
Don’t forget to listen
As the roles of the narrator and spectator keep shifting, brand owners must not only be great story tellers, but also excellent listeners. By following the online discussions around your brand, you can gain fresh and deep insights and use them to improve both communications and the actual products to meet your customers’ needs. This is even argued to be the biggest social media opportunity for companies (Barwise and Meehan, 2010).
Virgin Atlantic Airways strategically uses insights gained through social media dialogue to keep improving their offer, for example by launching a system to share a taxi with other passengers arriving on the same flight. Their social media channels are used to sculpt brand perception and build engagement, for example through crew member travel tips that comes across as informal, honest and caring, just like the company wishes to be perceived (Barwise and Meehan, 2010).
To take active part in user-driven storytelling, you need to be accepted by the other participants. This means knowing the unwritten rules, and being perceived as authentic. Companies who wish to succeed should consequently hire employees with competence in social media, and make sure they have deep knowledge of the products and branding strategy. (Järvinen, Tollinen, Karjaluoto, Jayawardhena, 2012; Barwise and Meehan, 2010). Paying agencies to create supposedly authentic content may quickly backfire.
Finally, as in any type of branding you need to be persistent and thoroughly analyze your efforts. But that’s another story.
Atlas Copco was founded in 1873 in Stockholm, Sweden. Read about Atlas Copco’s history here
Headstream, “The Power of Brand Storytelling” (2015). (https://headstream.com/brand-storytelling-headstream-research/)
S. Singh, S. Sonneburg, “Brand Performances in Social Media”/Journal of Interactive Marketing 26 (2012), 189-197.
P. Barwise, S. Meehan, “The One Thing You Must Get Right When Building a Brand”, Spotlight on Social Media and the New Rules of Branding, Harvard Business Review, December 2010.
J. Järvinen, A. Tollinen, H. Karjaluoto, C. Jayawardhena, Digital and Social Media Marketing Usage in B2BIndustrial Section, The Marketing Management Journal, Volume 22, Issue 2 (2012), Pages 102-117
C. Heine, “How a 147-Year-Old Brand Is ‘Resurrecting’ Its Founder on Instagram”, ADWEEK, October 10, 2015. (http://www.adweek.com/digital/how-147-year-old-brand-resurrecting-its-founder-instagram-167508/)