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Brand storytelling; choose your roles wisely

Storytelling has been around for centuries – from etching hunting scenes on cave walls and telling tales around a fire, to remaking a literary classic for the big screen – there is nothing new about it. In today’s hyper-connected, super-social world, storytelling is just as important as ever!

Over the years, the reason for storytelling has evolved to be a lot more strategic. It is no longer simply a means of recording history, passing down values or entertaining the masses. Today for most companies, storytelling is a carefully planned process with the ultimate aim of connecting brands with audiences in order to cement loyalties and drive business performance.

Every day, consumers are using technology to connect, express, learn and record their thoughts, feelings and whereabouts, ultimately giving brands new ways to be a part of their lives.

As storytelling has progressed from one form to another, companies and brands have learnt to take advantage of the latest mediums to engage audiences. Digital and online channels are the most effective media for companies to connect with audiences today. The growth of internet-enabled media also allows brands to gather user-generated content to craft new stories and reach audiences in ways previously unimaginable.

But the question on my mind today is – Who is the telling the brand story?

In this new era of super-social brand communication, should the CMO or CEO be the one telling consumers when to turn the page? By the same token, who should be the protagonists of the brand story?

Shaping a brand’s communications all depends on the story being told, who it is aimed at, and the message the company or brand wants to convey to its most important stakeholders.

One widely accepted notion is that the target audience or consumer should be the protagonist. As the leading character, the brand story should revolve around them, with all brand communication focused at prompting a specific reaction from the protagonist.

Choosing the storyteller on the other hand is a little more challenging. While CMOs may manage the overall development of their brand’s story, they don’t always make the best storytellers. In fact, they are probably more like the publisher, or the gatekeeper of all the brand’s storytelling efforts, making sure the story comes together and is packaged according to the audience/consumer/reader’s values.

The storyteller who delivers the brand’s message needs to appeal to the audience and align with their wants and needs. When this alignment occurs there is an increased likelihood that the storyteller’s connection with the audience will elicit a positive and planned reaction, resulting in commitment towards a brand or a change in purchasing behaviour.

Both the CEO and grassroots employees can make excellent authors and storytellers. The main thing to keep in mind is that a connection with the audience has to be forged. Unless the CEO or employee can deliver a story that provokes the right reaction, their role as a storyteller is wasted.

While CEOs can be effective storytellers, companies are using them more selectively to deliver their message, as they can be perceived as pushing a particular agenda (promoting the company/product/service to increase sales). When the audience feels this way they are more likely to switch off and disconnect from the brand rather than rally behind it. Of course, this depends on the message, the way in which it is told, and the desired connection the brand wants with its audience.

In some instances a strong leader-figure is needed to shape a specific brand story. Air Asia’s Group CEO, Tony Fernandez, and his transparent response to the crash of flight QZ8501 is a prime example of how a leader can successfully portray brand values to its audience. Through open communication and timely crisis management response, Mr Fernandez as a storyteller delivered a message of honesty and aligned himself with his audience who were looking for answers, not excuses. Air Asia was able to preserve their reputation in a time of crisis, thanks to the accurate alignment of their storyteller and audience.

While in this case the CEO playing storyteller handled the crisis skilfully, companies and brands are looking to find authors of their brand stories at a grassroots level. They are looking to the people who form the fabric of the company and can connect audiences with tangible stories while also bringing them back to the brand.

Having said this, just because a grassroots employee may relate well to an audience, it doesn’t mean they understand how to deliver the brand story appropriately. Everyday interactions, particularly via social media, have to be considered as part of the bigger brand story, and often this is where storytelling can go awry.

Recently, a Scoot stewardess took the heat on Facebook for a sarcastic comment made about a flight delay. While this was not a planned communication, the post carried messages contrary to Scoot’s values, damaging the brand story. This shows that employees have the power to shape the overall brand story even through a single Facebook post, and hence need to be mindful of the impact of their actions.

Mobile and internet-enabled technology have a clear place as the new-age storytelling medium, and brands should pay attention to how they translate their story through these media. While they offer greater interaction and reach, they also pose more risks as it becomes easier for audiences to lash out against a brand.

For this reason, marketers shouldn’t jump onto the ‘user generated content’ or mobile bandwagon, handing over storytelling power to their audience for the sake of engaging them. Engagement should stem from compelling stories and opportunities for the audience

to live out the story. This is what will compel consumers to change their purchasing behaviour and commit to a brand instead of going with a competitor.

Rohit Dadwal

The author, Rohit Dadwal, is the Managing Director of Mobile Marketing Association APAC.