Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Once Upon a Brand...


Make your company a living fairytale through storytelling! (courtesy of armadillo444)

Since time immemorial, mankind has always relied on stories to transmit information, values and ideas from generation to generation. Who isn't captivated by a compelling tale, whether sitting by a campfire or behind a computer screen? While the advent of social media has helped to enable conversations, the core of those discussions often revolve around stories.

The importance of anecdotes in branding is simply and elegantly captured in the book Branding Through Storytelling by Klaus Fog, Christian Budtz and Baris Yakaboylu from Sigma, a Danish firm specialising in brand building and cultural business development. According to the authors, storytelling helps companies to communicate the values of their brands and to reach their stakeholders in an emotional and deep-rooted manner. Through vivid and image-laden stories, employees, customers and partners are better able to appreciate and connect with lofty company visions, missions and values.

The book describes the following four basic elements of a good story:

1) Message - This is the whole purpose of telling a tale, and it forms the premise of the story. It is "an ideological or moral statement that works as a central theme throughout the story".

2) Conflict - Any story worth listening to will often have the classic battle between good and evil. Without this cliffhanger, people are less inclined to follow a story. Various levels of conflict can be woven into one's narrative, but it must be challenging enough to create that "WOW!" effect to listeners, viewers or readers.

3) Characters - These are the various personalities and factors in a story, which in a fairy-tale model could take the form of:

- The Benefactor (the King or the Company) who is the enabler of that dream or vision.

- The Goal (eg The princess and half the kingdom, premium customer service) which is the end objective to be reached.

- The Hero (eg prince on his white stallion, employees of the company) who needs to fulfill the quest or goal.

- The Supporter (eg good fairy or faithful squire, quality processes) who is a person, process or organisation which assists the hero in his or her purpose.

- The Adversary (eg dragon or evil witch, competitor companies) who is the negative force against the goodness and values embodied by the hero.

- The Beneficiary (eg the prince on his white stallion, the customers or stakeholders) who is the entity that will benefit by the hero achieving the quest.

4) The Plot - An essential element of any story, the plot is what keeps an audience interested in following a tale as it unfolds. This flow usually starts fairly quickly with a strong opening, the introduction of conflict, a seeming "point of no return", the mounting of conflict reaching a heightened climax before the "battle" is done and the story ends with a moral tale for everybody.

Following this "fairy-tale" model, company stories could various guises such as:

1) David and Goliath - How a small and delicate enterprise can beat the 800 pound gorilla.

2) Hare and Tortoise - How steadfastness and determination helps a small company to win the race.

3) Dennis the Menace - An unconventional and sometimes controversial approach (eg Virgin Group) which surprises and helps to win hearts.

4) Robin Hood - How the company acts as the bastion for all things good, fighting for justice despite its relative obscurity and powerlessness.

5) Ugly Duckling - How the "black sheep" which nobody thought would ever be outstanding proven to become a major force to be reckoned with during the passage of time.

To develop a story, one needs to look for suitable "raw materials" which can be found either from employees, the CEO, the founder, opinion leaders, working partners, customers, the product itself, or critical milestones in the business. As a branding tool, stories can be used both for internal and external brand communication. It can be used as a management tool, advertising tool, media publicity tool, and a relationship building tool with one's customers.

In fact, the most important tellers of one's story is probably one's customers. Through the conduit of Word Of Mouth channels like viral and buzz marketing, great stories are easily transmitted from family to friends, gathering speed as they go along. By letting a third party tell your tale, you are able to generate greater trust and assurance in your products and services as they are seen to be more objective than one's own employees.

Not all stories should have a happy ending though. Negative ones can sometimes be used to showcase mistakes and how one could learn and adapt from them.

Citing numerous examples of companies which have used storytelling to great effect like 3M, Apple, SAS (Scandinavian Airlines), Motorola, Kelloggs, and of course Virgin Group (through the lenses of its irrepressible founder Richard Branson), the book offers lots of useful and practical ways to make storytelling not just a myth but a reality. I particularly liked how it ended with the example of the Blair Witch Project.

The Blair Witch Project is one of the most creative approaches in executing a pre-publicity campaign for a movie. It resulted in a 34,000 Euro movie generating a worldwide sales of more than 135 million Euros. What appeared to be a "true story" of three college students disappearing in the woods of Blair in Maryland, USA, while making a documentary about a mythical Blair Witch turned out to be an elaborate effort in "mischief marketing". Through various news stories in the media (including covers on Time magazine and Newsweek), an internet website (www.blairwitch.com) and the appearance of various "witnesses", "police officers" and "relatives", an elaborate scam was orchestrated as part of a plot. The spinning of this intricate yarn culminated in the successful launch of the movie.

Though dismissed as deceptive by some, the Blair Witch Project campaign is an idea of how clever and systematic storytelling could help to build hype for one's otherwise humdrum product and service launch. Of course, not all stories need to be as convoluted or complex. Even simple stories can be inspiring and emotionally compelling, and perhaps it is here that one should start.

Have you shared a story related to your business today? If not, why not look at telling one today?

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