The traditional stories from our childhoods weren't just captivating, they were also easy to compose.
They had a beginning, and they had an end. There were heroes, and there were villains. And, invariably, the plot was told in chronological order by a trusted narrator.
Aware of the power of stories to hold an audience, organizations started using storytelling to sell—relying on storylines that made prospective customers associate positively with brands, and detailing how the brand could help those customers.
Whether those stories triggered fulfillment, aspiration, or satisfaction, brand stories played a huge role in influencing the actions and decisions of customers.
Just like your bedtime stories before them, brand stories were simple to narrate through traditional media like TV, radio, and print. Vitally, those mediums enabled brands to tell their story from beginning to end without breaking the all-important plot.
However, with the rise of digital, that has changed...
Digital has fragmented traditional brand storytelling
The ease of narrating a brand's story has been lost.
Digital made it almost impossible for a story to maintain its elements and therefore traditional coherence—disrupting the plot and shifting the control and power of the narrator to the customer.
Customers can now engage with the story's plot on their terms—whenever they want, however they want—changing the dynamics of how the story needs to be told and reducing brands' storytelling power.
Today, brand stories usually fail because of two main factors:
- The plot is constantly interrupted because of your customers' fragmented engagement points across devices.
- Research suggests customers are exposed to over 3,500 marketing messages a day, and you've got only around 12 seconds to engage them and get across the desired message each time you have their attention.
The result of such fragmentation, along with the ubiquity of advertising is the rising cost of attention.
However, these issues aren't insurmountable; you can still tell memorable brand stories using the following three key approaches.
1. Play your heroes against the villains
Make your customer the protagonist of your story (create a link to your customer's lifestyle and emotions, not their wallets)
Let's put this approach into practice. For an airline, which piece of copy do you think works better?
- "Our cheapest tickets ever"
- "Your family's summer holidays are special, start them right with [Insert Airline]".
The second is more powerful because it connects with your customers, making them the main character in the story.
You should also make your customer the hero of your story. Rather than your making your brand or product the focus, make your customer the one who defeats the villains and solves the problem.
Build your competitors as the villains in the story
Think Apple vs. Microsoft or Virgin Atlantic vs. British Airways—i.e., creating a common enemy for your brand gives your customers something to rally around. Doing so also creates a sense of alliance between you and your customers. This brand story them often emerges in cases of challenger brands against established names.
If you can't use your competitors as the villains, then you can position an ideology, a concept, or the status quo as the villain—for instance, complexity, waste, or the perceived stupidity of others (think how small car makers poke fun at people who drive larger vehicles).
ASOS took this approach with free returns. Acknowledging the inherent problems of buying clothing that fit online, ASOS made returns easy—turning it into one of their unique selling propositions (USPs) in the process.
This differentiated ASOS vs. other brands and also the entire industry, which charged for returns—hence creating a story in which ASOS helped the customer win. Free returns are more common today, but similar tactics can be used for products online. If you can differentiate by using a USP, it's easier to filter out the competitors.
2. Make the customer journey an experience that defines a problem and finds a solution for your customer
The setting or context of your story should consist of the problem that your main character is confronting.
Customers are most likely to use your service or product if it combats their pain. Accordingly, you need to identify the pain you solve and then take your customers on a journey during which, after articulating their problem, you make the problem go away.
Create conflict between the main character and the villains by comparing your brand's and your competitor brands' USPs.
We've already talked about making your customers the protagonist. If you can go one step further and show how their values oppose those of your competitor's (while agreeing with your own), you're well on the way to winning them over.
The simplest way to do this is to clearly define your USPs and ensure they tie in with your ideal customer's values while opposing those of your competition.
Developing the plot means tying in the elements of your setting and conflict to the customer journey so that your main character travels from their problem, to a conflict with villains (over the USPs), to the solution you provide.
3. Turn your touchpoints into narrators
The final, but most tricky, part in creating cohesive brand stories for the digital era is to turn your multichannel touchpoints (Web, in-store, social, mobile) into the narrators of your story.
Your "narrators" can then help you maintain brand engagement and articulate the plot correctly from start to finish in the right order—supplying a coherent customer experience in the process.
By continuing your story across multiple touchpoints, you're more likely to delight customers—increasing their loyalty and lifetime value in the process.
To achieve this customer experience nirvana, you need to be on the way to attaining a clear picture of your customers' data—across every channel. This single customer view enables you to manage all customer touch points simultaneously—and to carry your customer across channels with a progressive brand story.
* * *
Although brand stories have become trickier to tell, by using the three approaches I've outlined you can write brand stories that span channels and devices—enabling your business to effectively tell stories in the digital era.
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