Commentary

Marketing Is A Story

There’s a lot more buzz these days about the importance of storytelling in marketing, which I view as a very good development. Stories are powerful. They’re the way humans have made sense of the world since prehistory. And there’s no better, more powerful way to get your communication across and to persuade than with story.

But story is more than a vehicle for each individual communication, execution, pitch meeting, or research deck. Because your overarching brand strategy is a story, as well. And it needs to make sense across time, across media and vehicle, and across initiatives as a coherent story. Otherwise, you risk having a schizophrenic brand.

What do I mean by this?

Your individual activities need to make sense as part of an overall, coherent story. Stories are great ways to communicate marketing and sales messages in discrete units. But you must look at your brand story as longer than any individual execution. Consumers and customers see your brand -- and hence, your strategy -- as more enduring than a single event. Thus, individual communications should cohere with each other enough to fit your enduring story. Bouncing around from one-off story to one-off story will be as jarring to your brand as jumping from an episode of one TV show to an episode of a different one -- and about as effective.    

That doesn’t mean that plotlines or devices of one initiative must be continued or picked up in another. But it does mean that the overall brand story, regardless of initiative, should be understood and present in each communication.

Your annual marketing plans should add to your story like chapters in a book. Every marketer anticipates hours of work writing their upcoming year’s marketing plan. But you shouldn’t feel that you’re starting with a blank piece of paper each time. Because this year’s story should feel like it’s built on last year’s chapter. And each new year should feel like it’s forwarding the brand’s progress against its overall story arc.

Unfortunately, brands often address each year as an independent event. They don’t use  lessons from last year’s chapter to shape this year’s approach. Or they may even stray from their enduring storyline to try to capture other short-term gains. If you think of your brand story as a journey, these detours and side-ventures take the brand off-route from its strategic destination.

Your brand story helps you understand what not to do. One of the most powerful benefits of your strategy is that it helps to define what you shouldn’t do. It’s the same with your brand story.

I once worked on Unilever’s Wish-Bone brand, where the brand story was about “bold, lively flavor.” Consumer research had identified this story as both a powerful category desire and a territory the brand owned in the marketplace.

So we built the flavor story across everything we did. Until one year, a brand manager decided that Wish-Bone should address the growing creamy ranch segment of the market. The problem is that the brand didn’t attack it with flavorful, bold ranches -- but with a me-too, family-friendly approach. As you can imagine, this effort failed. And taking the brand’s eye off its bold flavor story ended Wish-Bone’s five consecutive years of growth.

So, by all means, create a story for your brand. And use your story to communicate more powerfully. But your story will be more than that for you – it will be a filter, a connector, an aggregator, and an authenticator.

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