Sadly, even when brand communications hit all the marks—they're clear, meaningful and on message—they're often dull.
That's an opportunity, though, for companies that are willing to show off their human side and maybe even stick their necks out a little.
Try any of the following five stratagems, and you'll be on your way to building more powerful brands.
1. Have a personality
Often, businesses (including marketers) think they need to talk about their service, product, or industry in the way everyone else does. They fear that if they don't, they'll seem out of the loop.
Frankly, that makes little sense. How many businesses can you name that have made a big impact by following the crowd? And how can you convince people you're different if you sound just like your competition?
Let your freak flag fly. Or, at least sound like your company is run by humans—people who want to talk to other people. If you don't sound like the typical whatever, that's the point: In a crowded marketplace, companies with personality stand out.
To cite two well-known examples, consider how memorable Progressive Insurance and Geico are, even though they're not all that different from their competitors.
2. Be provocative
If you want to be a thought leader (and why wouldn't you these days?), the quickest way out of the gate is to be provocative. Challenging received wisdom or jolting people out of complacency can create buzz and show that you really are thinking.
Questioning conventional approaches in your field, prodding people to re-examine assumptions, and pointing out naked emperors are all ways to get noticed as a powerful brand. A classic example is Patagonia's "Don't Buy This Jacket" campaign for Cyber Monday.
A few tips on making this approach work:
- Be sure you can support your claims.
- Balance the negative with the positive. If you're only a downer, you'll turn people off.
- Focus on the big stuff: Pointing out that the emperor has no clothes is a civic duty; saying his new haircut makes him look 10 years older is just petty.
Provocation for its own sake will seem like a cheap ploy. But if you have strong support for a controversial position or a good reason to blast people out of complacency, go for it.
3. Tell a story
The surefire way to truly engage people and make a lasting impression is to tell a story.
Stories are the oldest form of "mass" communication, and some researchers think we're hardwired to respond to them. We're certainly trained to draw messages from them—think Aesop's fables and classic novels—and that makes them invaluable for brand-building communications.
Stories help people relate to what you do. Compelling stories help you get media attention.
To tell stories effectively...
- Start with a memorable image or anecdote.
- Use story structure. Stories have a plot with a beginning, middle and end; crisis (or challenge) and resolution; and characters.
- Make it personal. Have a central character that people will relate to or be fascinated by.
- Tap emotions. Don't just recount the plot—include feelings, intuitions, or drive.
- Remember the moral. Spell out how the story expresses your company's mission or value.
4. Aim for a nerve
Marketing gurus often talk about speaking to your audience's "pain" and showing how you can make it go away. That advice draws on a larger principle: When you hit a nerve, you get attention.
That's true whether you target pains, desires, or aspirations. There's a reason sex and lifestyle sell products: Communications that generate an emotional response put people in a frame of mind to listen to your rational case (or bypass it altogether). For example, the pioneering New Resource Bank hits a nerve with the question, "Do you know where your money sleeps at night?" as an entree to telling the story of how its deposits work for good.
The ability to hit a nerve well and consistently requires truly knowing your audience: what motivates them and what drives them crazy; what hems in their choices and what brings them rewards. Be cautious about assuming that you and your colleagues "get" your audience in this way: Even if you are demographic doppelgangers, you're operating with the tunnel vision of insider knowledge.
And make sure you find out what people do, not just what they say. What people act on is the true sign of what motivates them.
5. Take a stand
Businesses often shy away from taking stand on public issues, choosing to leave advocacy to advocacy organizations. That's too bad, because a strong, clear position sets you apart from the waffling crowd.
Taking a stand on a social or environmental question or a budding concern in your field can help you create a devoted core of brand advocates as well as gain media attention.
It's true that you risk alienating some people, but values are part of what attract devoted fans, so as long as the positions you take are consistent with your brand values, the upside of speaking out is likely to be larger than the downside.
There are plenty of ways to do this: The mechanics of taking a stand can range from executive advocacy to marketing campaigns.
Two examples: Sungevity's co-founder protested at the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline (and got arrested for his trouble), underscoring the company's environmental values; Costco CEO and President Craig Jelinek came out in support of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, burnishing the company's reputation as desirable employer.
One caveat: though your CEO doesn't have to get arrested protesting in front of Congress, you do have to put a real stake in the ground. "We love kittens" won't earn you any stand-up points, nor will following the crowd.
Taking public positions or making core values part of your marketing may feel risky, but it can be liberating.
And keep in mind a bigger-picture benefit: Business voices can be extremely influential, so you have a real opportunity to move the needle on a public debate.