Great performing brands all have one thing in common. They have a great story to tell and they do a great job telling that story. One of the most important aspects of telling a great story is authenticity. If your story doesn’t ring true to your audience, it will never spread. And it may cause loyal customers to defect. Given the power of authentic storytelling, it’s surprising how few companies actually do this well. So why do so many companies fail? And how do the best brands pull it off? And how can you do the same?
Most marketers begin the process of brand storytelling by thinking about a target market that they want to own. Then they develop a story that they want to tell. Then they spend a lot of money on compelling creative to tell this story. And when the market doesn’t respond like they had hoped, they immediately question their creative or their marketing channels. They never consider that their story is the problem. Why would they? Marketing is about persuading people to buy into your story, right? How could the story be the problem?
In “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind,” Al Ries and Jack Trout propose that brand storytelling works best when it leverages existing consumer brand perceptions. And it fails miserably when your storytelling flies in the face of these existing brand perceptions. One example that they cite in their book is Avis, the rental car company. At one time Avis was widely perceived as the #2 car rental company by consumers, behind the market leader Hertz. One of the benefits of being the #2 car rental company is that the lines at your counter are shorter. And people seem to work harder to earn your business. So Avis tapped into into these existing brand perceptions to create one of the most successful marketing campaigns of that era. They started promoting that they were the #2 car rental company, and why that position made all the difference to their customers. And in a few short years they actually surpassed Hertz to become the #1 car rental company. Then they decided to start promoting the fact that they were #1, and that’s when their market share fell back to the #2 position. Avis’ rise to #1 started when they listened to what their best customers were telling them and then used this to create their brand story. And their fall to #2 came about when they ignored their customers and tried to tell an unauthentic story.
Avis’ story of success (and subsequent failure) illustrates the most important first step in the process of creating your brand story. To succeed, you need to take the time to listen to your customers. If you do, they will help you discover and hone the story of your brand. By asking them to tell their story of how your brand has helped them and what your brand means to them, you gain the most critical currency in brand storytelling: authenticity. Another key aspect of this phase of the process is to capture the story in their voice. Write down what they tell you exactly how they tell it to you. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t prosaic, or if they tell the story in a long and rambling way. What matters is that you capture it word for word, because in one form or another these are the same words that you should use in your story. When you’ve collected enough customer stories (30-40 is a good start), begin to look for similarities. It’s these similarities that will form the basis of the story of your brand.
Once you’ve settled on the story that your customers are telling you, it’s a good time to check in with the your team. They are going to play a big role in getting your story out to your audience, and in ensuring that this story remains authentic over time. They will also help contribute to the story, adding their perspectives based on their interactions with customers. Once you get your team’s buy-in, you can use this brand story to help craft or refine your company’s mission statement and core values. Think of your company mission statement as a reminder to everyone in your company of why you do what you do. Your core values describe how you want everyone to show up day in and day out to accomplish your mission. Together they help ensure that you and your team stay true to your brand story. They also help team members become more empowered by providing a consistent and well-understood framework for decision-making.
So now that you have your brand story, mission statement and core values figured out, it’s time to promote your brand. They way that you accomplish this is through collecting and sharing authentic stories. And you need to do this both internally to your team, and externally to your market. Some companies never think to promote these stories internally, but doing so is critical to your success. Your team needs to internalize your mission and core values and then model them day in and day out. If they don’t, then the reality of your brand experience will not sync up with your brand story. And when this happens, your brand story loses its authenticity. So invest in promoting your brand story internally from the beginning. Work with your team to identify and promote stories that exemplify how you expect them to carry out your mission and core values. Take every opportunity to share these stories, both good and bad, until your team feels confident that they know how to model the right behaviors. And make this entire process ongoing and repeatable, so that every time a new situation arises or you hire a new employee, the team can quickly gain a clear understanding of what’s important and what’s expected of them.
The process for promoting your brand externally is a similar one. On an ongoing basis, collect stories from your customers that reflect your brand story and share them with your market. Use negative customer feedback as a tool to keep your team on the right track. Net Promoter Score (NPS), a customer loyalty measurement methodology, is a simple and effective tool to help identify promising customer stories. It can also identify where you and your team might be straying from your brand story, providing you with teachable moments to help your team course correct. Once you’ve identified promising customer stories through NPS, interview those customers. Capture what they tell you verbatim. And then promote those stories through every available channel at your disposal.
Putting this process into practice can be challenging, especially if your company is growing and you’re struggling to keep up. It’s also ironic when you consider that this process can help ensure that you successfully navigate through this growth period. If you need some help, please feel free to reach out to us. We’ve helped companies just like yours tap into their authentic brand story to generate remarkable results, and we can help you too. And if you’d like to learn more about the NPS methodology, check out my blog post entitled “Why Great Customer Service is Great Marketing.” It contains some great tips and techniques for getting started with NPS.