3 ways compelling brand stories make businesses better

How much is a ceramic cat painted with a red chili pattern worth?

Fifty cents if you buy it from a thrift store; $22.72 if auctioned on eBay with a story by novelist Lydia Millet.

The chili cat was part of the Significant Objects Project, a multiphase experiment designed to test the hypothesis that talented creative writers could invest an object with value that it did not previously have. The result: project curators Rob Walker and Josh Glenn sold $128 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.

I thought of this project when challenged to break down the value of a brand story. It’s a clever and highly entertaining demonstration of how much of the value we ascribe to things—and experiences—lies in the stories surrounding them. A story is often the X factor that inspires an intense desire to have that whatever. I know I’m susceptible to it—and I’m aware that it’s working on me. (Here’s how a story made me buy.)

So what’s the value of a brand story? There are lots of ways to slice it, but most businesses seek these three benefits.

Premium pricing
As the Significant Objects Project shows, people are willing to pay more for something that’s surrounded by the aura of an emotionally involving story. (This is also borne out by celebrity estate sales.) Apple’s success is often attributed to product and UI design, but the company’s ability to sell at premium prices in commodified markets has at least as much to do with Apple’s powerful brand story of creativity, independence and individuality.

Employee evangelism
Sustainable businesses have always placed high value on communicating their purpose and having employees live it—and more and more businesses that wouldn’t define themselves as sustainable are seeing the light. But merely larding the employee handbook with lists of “our values” and posting corporate mission statements is not going to give workers pride of place. To really engage employees—and get them talking with customers, friends, everyone about how great the company is—businesses need a story that expresses those values naturally, in a way that engages employees’ own values and feels true. (That means the company’s actions need to square up with its story—see this post.)

We’ve seen this work with clients: teams that couldn’t even manage a concise or consistent description of what their company was about were speaking with confidence and excitement once they had a story to draw upon.

Marketing across messages and channels
You can’t have fundamentally different messages about your company and its offerings for different markets and channels and still have a coherent, plausible brand. At the same time, market segments—demographic, geographic and so on—have their own concerns, and a particular marketing channel can dictate a particular style. The answer is a brand story that’s rich and emotionally resonant enough to feed a wide variety of campaigns and communication needs. (For an example of this principle in action, see this Harvard Business Review article on how Coca-Cola has used a story platform to create advertising that’s both global and local.)

When you have an effective brand story, you can tell it many languages—both literally and figuratively—in a way that’s true to your brand and adds value to what you’re selling.

Meanwhile, can I interest you in something from the Thinkshift swag collection? There’s a great story behind our press-on tattoos. …

PR basics spawn new ideas, energy in partner network

We’re in the midst of mobilizing a client’s international partner network to help us get the word out fast about a project with a crucial deadline looming, and it’s been truly energizing. Though we have a short timeframe and a nonprofit startup budget, we also have a bountiful supply of enthusiasm, dedication to the mission and a sharp focus on our goal. I want to share our approach, not only because it’s been fun, but also because it’s a reminder that PR basics are the necessary foundation for a creative approach.

Make a direct ask. We connected with partners directly and told them what we need, asking for a short phone call with each one to work out details. Anything longer would be a burden, and the calls lasted only 5 to 15 minutes—enough for them to tell us what they could do and what they needed from us to accomplish it. Most important, we want to make sure we make them look good too. These calls set the stage, and got everyone excited about contributing.

Create a communications toolkit. We want this to be as easy as possible for our partner organizations. We had a good idea of what our toolkit would contain, and our conversations rounded out the content. It will be plug-and-play: press releases, a blog article, posts for social platforms, photos, quotes and more. We also will provide some customized content for a few partners that need it.

Determine measurement. We want to track partner activity, message amplification and the impact on our goal. The last is most difficult, as there’s no way to automate it. For the first two, we’ll use simple online monitoring and analytics and a custom hashtag.

Let people loose. We’ll give partners the toolkit with basic suggestions for use and a timeline, and then get out of the way. They’ll do as much as they can, and we’ll follow activity and be ready to step in if they need help.

Our “get the basics right” approach has provided benefits beyond our immediate PR goal. It has opened up new possibilities for future promotion (the project continues through fall) and inspired a sense of ownership among partners that’s generating a lot of energy and ideas. It is a true collaboration that’s producing sharp thinking and creative solutions.

When tactics trump strategy, it’s a marketing fail

Flipping through Mark Schaefer’s snappy presentation, Social Media Engagement Is Not a Strategy, I was struck by how easy it is to mistake marketing means for ends. Certainly plenty of companies do it—including those with savvy marketing leaders who really do know better.

Schaefer’s main point (his whole presentation is worth a look) is that many businesses are mistakenly trying to engage people on social media as if engagement itself were the goal. But it’s not—or it shouldn’t be. The goal should be to meet a business objective, such as acquiring new customers or improving customer service. If you’ve achieved engagement but not your goal, you haven’t succeeded.

I see this same strategic miscue applied to other marketing tools. Take public relations—everyone wants more and bigger hits because the more and bigger, the better, right? Not necessarily. What are you trying to accomplish with PR? Are you trying to raise brand awareness generally? Then yes, it’s worth trying to get into the general-interest media as much as possible. Are you trying to support B2B business development? Then you may be more likely to reach your goal by targeting the trade media that serve your market.

Finally, there’s the bigger question: is your organization even ready for PR? Do you have a strong, clear message? Good stories to tell? Articulate (and interesting) spokespeople? The capacity to handle a surge in sales, if that’s what your PR campaign is designed to produce? A plan for countering negative publicity?

Content marketing also engenders tactic vs. strategy confusion. Marketers are churning out more content than ever, but to what end? You can’t pummel people into submitting to your charms with a barrage of content. Most businesses are trying to attract customers and nudge them along through the sales funnel. Will your content marketing do that?

You can probably go through a similar exercise with a number of marketing approaches. The key to avoiding the tactics trap is to look away from the shiny object (the trendy or sexy tactic). Focus first on what you want to achieve, then figure out the thing that will do that.

Storytelling can help communicate sustainability value to investors

The vast majority of investors see sustainability as an opportunity and a business advantage, but most also say companies don’t successfully communicate how “sustainability initiatives are linked to their strategy, financial performance and value in meaningful ways.”

That’s according to research by Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), a U.K.-based initiative that works under the aegis of the United Nations Global Compact. Investor Study: Insights from PRI Signatories, co-written with Accenture, finds that a majority of CEOs (still only 57 percent, but that’s a topic for another day) say they are able to set out their sustainability strategy. However, only 9 percent of investors say that CEOs can do this. And while 38 percent of CEOs say they communicate the business value of their efforts, only 7 percent of investors agree.

These findings reveal “a striking gap which exposes the shortcomings of many companies in effectively communicating their approach to sustainability and its links to the traditional measures of business value and success,” says the report.

The PRI report makes a number of recommendations for addressing this challenge, though curiously, only one—“focus on opportunity and value,” rather than risk and mitigation—is fundamentally about communications. The others are suggestions for systemic changes often beyond the scope of an individual company: commitment to the long term, developing the knowledge base of investment advisors, developing common metrics across industry sectors, collaborating with policymakers to reshape markets and systems. These are worthy efforts, but they overlook something every company can do that I believe would vastly shrink the communications gap: create strong brand stories for sustainability.

This is a significant overlooked opportunity. Few companies are telling sustainability brand stories, but they can deliver a range of benefits from improving investor communications to gaining customer buy-in to motivating internal teams. A sustainability story can:

  • Enable you to realize the brand value of your sustainability investment
  • Clearly articulate your sustainability mission so people at all levels align around it
  • Support increased investment in sustainability program funding
  • Integrate your sustainability story with your brand story and overall business objectives
  • Clearly articulate your value and values to all audiences
  • Serve as a lodestar for evaluating potential actions

To be sure, investors want hard business facts. And it would be simplistic to say that a brand sustainability story alone will give investors the information they seek—there needs to be a “there there.” But stories bring facts to life and make them memorable. They resonate in ways hard numbers don’t; a story connects the dots to the wider world as well as to the company’s own vision and goals.

Fully communicating value and benefits requires a story that engages the heart as well as the mind. Giving sustainability a narrative that places the company’s efforts in context, highlights the people involved (both those who are acting and those who benefit), illustrates qualitative as well as quantitative value, chronicles the journey, and maps that journey to goals will help companies provide the information that investors—and customers—need to spend their money wisely.

Start off 2015 with the right content marketing metrics

Like my partner, I’m not going to kick off 2015 by generating a list of prognostications about sustainability marketing. But in the spirit of the fresh-start season, I do want to call attention to one of the myths about content marketing: results can’t be measured.

The reality is that it takes some effort, but it can (and should) be done. What better way to start off a new year than to get serious about metrics, from your blog to white papers to social media?

The measures that matter, of course, are whether content marketing generates leads, moves people along your sales funnel and boosts profitability. A simple example: someone entirely new to you signs up for a report on your website and later becomes a customer; it’s fair to conclude that your content played a role. The complicating factors: that may take a while; there are probably other “touches” that contributed to the sale; and in many cases you won’t know when people see your content.

How you measure results (and how often) will vary by your sales process, your volume and the scope of your efforts. But regardless of the particulars of your situation, it’s essential to closely track your sales process as well as responses to your content at every step and in every channel (and each channel has its own measurement opportunities). Some key questions: How may new leads does your content generate? What’s the cost, compared with other methods? Are they real leads? Are they sticking around?

It’s not as complicated as it sounds—choose the measurements that are right for your programs and track them. (Focus is key!) The Content Marketing Institute provides excellent and detailed advice and examples; here’s a good article to get you thinking. And for more on content marketing, check out our Content Marketing: Myth vs. Reality guide.

Happy New Year!