The way companies can tell their stories has changed. No longer is it purely through advertising or journalists producing articles. Today, a brand’s narrative can be told just as effectively through social media and crowd-sourced content.
However, as Geoff Mead, founder of Narrative Leadership Associates, points out in his new book ‘Telling the Story – the heart and soul of successful leadership’, a company’s yarn must be authentic and never a sales pitch. It must be based in reality, even if marketers embellish it with a healthy dollop of creativity.
Authentic stories need to be told
“Stories involve specific events that happen to particular characters, so narratives that veer towards generalities, explanations and abstractions, or which insist on telling their moral or meaning, have abandoned storytelling in favour of advocacy,” says Mead. “They lose their extraordinary ability to stimulate both the feelings and imagination of the teller and the audience.”
Ultimately a brand’s story is not just something businesses should refer to every time they launch a marketing campaign or issue a press release. It should be the foundations on which a future growth strategy is built.
Entrepreneur John Stapleton co-founded The New Covent Garden Soup Co in 1989 and agrees that a good story must be credible to resonate with the target audience. He sold the business to the Hain Celestial Group for $230m in 2011.
Stapleton talks enthusiastically about the background to the company. How in 1987 his fellow co-founder Andrew Palmer was returning from a morning’s sailing and, feeling cold, he asked his mother for something warm to eat rather than the salad he was served. With some quick thinking she used the same ingredients to whip up a bowl of fresh, warm, home-made soup for her son. From this lunch the idea for the New Covent Garden Soup Co and fresh soup in cartons rather than jars or tins was born.
Other stories used to promote the brand included asking staff to provide old family soup recipes. This generated considerable publicity in the brand’s early days when the marketing budget was relatively small.
“You have to tell the truth and then spin the story for marketing purposes,” says Stapleton. “Obviously you need good products but the success of many brands is linked to emotion. A strong story based in reality will bring your message and values to life in a way the consumer can believe in.”
Stapleton also launched the toddler and baby food brand Little Dish in 2005.
When his business partner Hillary Graves was expecting her first child she noticed there was a lack of fresh, healthy ready meals for toddlers. She created a range using ingredients most people would find in their kitchens. In a similar vein to Covent Garden Soup Co, brand storytelling is at the heart of the business.
Storytelling can set you apart from the competition
Another company with a strong story to tell is brewer and pub owner Adnams which was established in 1872. It is based in the Suffolk seaside town of Southwold and Adnams constantly reminds people of its work with local farmers and producers. It is also active in the community and has strong green credentials. It is, for example, committed to turning brewery waste into biogas.
“A brand’s narrative can set a company apart in a competitive sector,” says Adnams marketing director Emma Hibbert.
Measuring the effectiveness of any brand story is never easy but Hibbert says it is possible, if not always scientific. “A strong story is engaging, and we know from the popularity of our brewery tours how it creates brand advocates and repeat sales.”
When it comes to creating that engaging and authentic story, the marketing team will often work closely with the communications/PR department.
This is certainly the case at car giant Ford where PR is intrinsically linked with marketing to tell stories. Europe vice president of communications and public affairs Mark Truby, says a brand’s story can change consumer perceptions, especially if you want people to repeat the narrative on your behalf.
“A good story makes you feel something and is universal. People want to buy a car from a company they relate to and they understand,” he says. “They want to grasp your values and your commitment to excellence; be inspired and intrigued. Storytelling is the most powerful way to convey these ideas.”
Ford uses storytelling to emphasise its passion for its products. For the launch of the Focus RS in January the company developed an eight-part documentary on the making of the Focus RS sports car. The episodes went out each week on YouTube and showed how a team of engineers were under immense pressure to meet tight deadlines.
“We exposed the true story – setbacks, conflict, compromises and ultimately success,” says Truby. “Once you’ve watched this you can never see an RS on the road again without understanding just how much passion went into creating it.”
He also believes that traditional media, can be an influential way to express a brand’s story. “I have even heard some great stories in executive speeches that have changed my perception of a company for the better, and a speech is about as traditional as it gets.”
The Direct Marketing Association’s head of external affairs, Mike Lordan, also believes traditional media can be influential. He says direct mail could have a greater role to play as the gap between the offline and online worlds closes. He cites how more brands are using new technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality in their apps and choosing personalised URLs.
“There is still a big place for direct mail to tell stories,” says Lorden. “Its great benefit is that it is personalised, and it tends to stay around the home so it can be seen again and again by the addressee. Mail also adds an extra dimension to the work done online, so the two work best together.”
The best stories tap into people’s emotions because someone genuinely connects to what a brand stands for or where it has come from. The marketers who can paint the pictures and create such personal relationships are well on the way to establishing long-term brand loyalty.