Brand stories are only worthwhile if they are true

Ruth Mortimer

“We don’t do product marketing really,” states James Fairbank, head of brand and central marketing at upmarket cyclingwear brand Rapha. Instead of promoting products it promotes the cycling lifestyle, relying on stories of the sport and its “heroes” to convey the desirability of Rapha items.

Marketing a lifestyle rather than a product is an interesting strategy. Most brands choose a path somewhere between the two. For example, Coca-Cola always heavily promotes the feeling that using its brand can offer – “open happiness” – rather than the ingredients of its products. But it also makes sure it pushes its individual drinks: Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, Fanta and so on.

Fairbank, who was speaking at a PSFK event, explained that his brand is so lifestyle oriented that it even makes branded coffee machines and skincare products – not because it is moving into cosmetics or the café market, but because it reminds people about the cycling lifestyle at any point in their day, so ultimately bringing their thoughts back to Rapha.

Rapha also relies heavily on stories to communicate its message. What Fairbank calls “story labels” are stitched into its garments to tell tales of cycling heroes and the drama of the sport. These story labels have now been expanded into a series of films by Rapha and RSA Films about the passion, history and drama of cycling.

We are hearing more and more about the importance of stories to brands. Only a couple of weeks ago, Nissan’s top global marketer spoke to Marketing Week about a business shift away from scientific, product-based marketing and towards story-telling.

Dan Germain, head of creative at drinks company Innocent, was talking at the same event as Fairbank and he too kept coming back to stories.

Germain said: “Editing is going to be the most important thing in businesses. You need to tell stories and be social. Having an editor is as important for businesses as media organisations. You now need editors because otherwise you can read so much dross from organisations.”

But what no-one has mentioned yet is that stories are only as good as their truth. A story is wonderful but it won’t be effective unless it is rooted in reality and the consumer experience. For example, Rapha’s stories ring true to its customers because they understand that a company that bonkers about cycling will always try to make the best possible products for it.

This week’s cover story looks at the stories told by the Olympic and Paralympic brand sponsors of the Games. The tale of London 2012 was always supposed to be about the legacy for the UK, sport and young people. Are the brand legacy tales already underway or do the sponsors need to return to the drawing board? We investigate the legacy stories here – do they stand up to scrutiny?

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