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A marketer’s guide to storytelling
Think of your favorite stories. Your favorite books. Now imagine what they would feel like if you took away the unique personalities of all the characters. If you deleted their names and their experiences. If you knew them only by their job titles.
Take away their flaws, too. Make each character perfectly competent at their job, and eliminate the tension between them. Remove the arc of the story, so that every step of their journey is a successful one.
What do you have now? Well, not the same book, and probably a story that you’d want to read. But somehow this is the story that thousands of companies want to write about themselves. Look at their social media pages, their websites and ad campaigns. The better ones have their own voice, a sense of humor, perhaps even a vulnerability that readers can identify with. A mascot or tagline to set the tone, or an approachable spokesperson for the company. Other companies tend to skip this part of their marketing campaign, and the result can be that they appear to be a kind of faceless corporation.
Why is this important?
A truly successful business attracts repeat customers. But normal, social, real-world people find it hard to develop a sense of loyalty to something that doesn’t have a personality. People also like good stories. Stories are fresh, and new, and differentiate you from the others in your industry.
Why should anyone choose to buy from your company if they can’t tell the difference between you and your competitors? It takes effort for a person to leave their comfort zone and try an untested new product or a new company. A good story can make that effort seem worthwhile.
So what do we recommend?
If you’re a company that markets your products to the public, spend some time carefully considering how to give your brand its own unique voice. Show your audience how you work. Take us back to the moment when you first conceived the company. Show us the laboratory where you spent years working, and failing, and working some more until you got the result you needed. Show us what you looked like when you started, and where you are now. And above all, show us who you are, so that we can feel like you haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be a regular person.
Michael Lewis, the world’s most respected business writer, recently said this: “I need characters. If I don’t have a character, I can’t find my way into a story.”
The character doesn’t need to be any particular person. But it should be a persona – someone the audience can use to identify with the whole company. Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald are examples for food companies; Steve Jobs was the face of Apple Computers; and the General Manager normally gets a page at the front of every hotel booklet or airline magazine.
These days, blogs boosted by social media are the most popular way for companies to create new personas. A good rule of thumb is: Think of everything you want your company name to mean to its customers. Then find a voice (and perhaps a face) that captures that quality – and promote that brand and persona until people start to automatically associate your brand with its market focus. When you think of hamburgers, which company do you think of? When you think of kids’ movies and cartoons, which company comes to mind?
Do people automatically think of your company when they need the kind of product that you make? If not, you may need to work on your branding and personas.
If your company does a wide variety of things which can’t all be summarized by a single voice – if they sell everything from soft drinks to car insurance, for example – then use different names for different parts of the company.
Disney also owns the sports channel ESPN, as well as one of the big four American TV networks (ABC), and has a big stake in the History Channel, the Biology Channel and many more. But Disney doesn’t advertise its ownership of these properties, because it knows the importance of giving each part of its business its own unique brand, voice and persona.
As a business, you know what you’re good at. The challenge is to know what you’re not good at also. Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Know who you want to be and who you can be, and use your brand identity to embody that. Make your story short and memorable, so that it can be repeated in regular conversation when your customers mention your product to their friends.
When people start to associate you with a personality rather than just a company trying to sell its products, that’s how you know you have a real relationship with your audience. The world has more than enough faceless corporations already, but it’s always hungry for more stories.