The narrative is the thing: the art of corporate storytelling
Alan Berkson has a unique place in the world of thought leadership. He is the guy who has the science of the corporate narrative nailed. Just plain pinned. He is gracing our blog with a post that tells the story of telling stories on behalf of corporations. Listen up.
Once again, I have a great guest post from another friend and person I admire greatly - and another Alan (spelling different). Let's welcome Alan Berkson, from Freshdesk, who is not only a thought leader but someone who has carved a special place in the pantheon. Alan is an expert at defining a corporate narrative - an area of paramount importance in a business world defined by digital transformation.
A corporate narrative? Are you surprised? The 21st century demands that companies present themselves in new ways. For example, old school product marketing, based on the exhibition of features and functions, no longer works or is even likeable in any way. It now demands something akin to "a day in the life." How are the products going to affect the outcomes I'm looking for as my day proceeds? In other words a narrative, a story.
But Alan is speaking on a bigger stage than just product marketing. He's looking at the strategic requirement that the companies who are trying to engage with customers have a the same time the customers have the opportunity to express themselves with strong collective power.
I'm going to turn it over to Alan now. He is far more articulate in this area than I am - a better storyteller so to speak.
So, Alan, let the narrative commence!
Entertainment and corporate communications have intertwined for as long as there have been things to sell and stories to tell. Marketing has traditionally shown consumers what they want the consumer to see, but pervasive communications—the explosion of multi-directional media channels—has made this model obsolete. The age of broadcast is clearly dead. We are not just dealing with an audience, but an audience of audiences; people whose collective voice can have far greater power than any single television commercial or even advertising campaign.
It’s not news to anyone when I say we’ve entered a time where communications have become ubiquitous, and we live amongst a generation of hyper-connected individuals. The challenge we face is how to navigate across the chaotic ocean of pervasive communications. With the abundance of information—useful and otherwise—available to today’s consumers it’s becoming more difficult to make an impact and be heard above the noise.
This requires new techniques and tools. The solution lies in the substance of the corporate narrative.
The notion of storytelling outside of the context of entertainment has emerged. Words like “engagement” and “brand narrative” have entered the vernacular and are staples in the lexicon of those tasked with communicating for businesses and organizations. New digital and social media platforms have raised the bar—and raised the stakes—in how businesses communicate with their ecosystem.
Conversations surrounding brand have moved out of the marketing department. All the stakeholders of an organization—customers, employees, investors, partners, vendors, and yes, even competitors—are telling some aspect of the story of the brand.
The issue? They’re not always talking about the same thing.
Over the past two years I’ve collaborated with Jeff Gomez developing some techniques behind corporate and brand narrative. In addition to crystallizing the brand messaging behind Coca-Cola’s “Happiness Factory” campaign, and Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish brand, his company, Starlight Runner, recently formed a partnership with Raptor Consumer Products to forge narratives for the hedge fund’s various entrepreneurial start-ups and young companies such as Spartan Race.
“When there are different interpretations of what a company stands for, there is danger in generating contradiction and dissonance,” says Gomez. “The danger of dissonance increases exponentially when you introduce these conflicting messages into today’s super-mediated environment.
“In a minor interview, a CEO makes an off the cuff comment about how his apparel was not created for fat and ugly people, and that message comes back to bite him in the ass on The Ellen Show years later. One of your customer service reps makes an untoward remark during a complainer’s call, and suddenly hundreds of people are chirping about it on Twitter. “
In these cases, neither the CEO or customer service representative was committed to a corporate narrative designed to include a foundational philosophy that would have provided clear, forthright messaging in response to such mistakes, or perhaps even prevented them.
So how do you get everyone on the same page? The corporate narrative provides the framework. It is a story that embodies the essence of your business in action, comprised of more than just products and services, and more even than your mission statement. It’s what your company stands for, and how it’s making the world a better place. It’s a story that comprises your strengths AND your weaknesses.
We identified the following elements that allow for the development of a corporate narrative:
The company’s vision, ethos and founding principles;
The company’s messages, themes and aspirational elements;
What the company is giving to the world: your products, services and your actions.
The Challenges of Corporate Narrative
In the pervasive media era we have powerful new platforms that influence how and what we communicate. Businesses need to evolve their communication model to meet the challenges presented by these platforms. Three important challenges we face include:
People Will Talk
Conducting the Orchestra
The Challenge: How do you align company stakeholder actions and messages with your corporate ethos?
Today, brands live in a world of unprecedented transparency. Where the old definition of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) was sufficient for sales and marketing messaging, the new definition of FUD (Full Unwanted Disclosure) presents challenges to the 20th century “broadcast” model of communications. Until recently it was fair to expect that, as a brand, you could make unilateral decisions about what you shared about your organization and push it through managed channels. Today, you have many more people communicating—authorized or not—on behalf of your brand. And, as we’ve seen in many high profile cases on Twitter and Facebook, often with disastrous results.
Every action a company takes these days is subject to intense scrutiny. In particular, pervasive media creates challenges, with ease and reach amplifying the impact of a gaffe or faux pas. Whether it’s a poorly worded interview, unfortunate updates on social channels, or internal conversations becoming public, there is a minefield of risks.
This is exemplified in the case of British retailer HMV. In the midst of a corporate reorganization, they pulled employees into a room to lay them off. One employee with access to the corporate Twitter account decided to live tweet the layoff.
This was an extreme example but its indicative of the perils. The consideration here is not only the events but being in a position to mitigate the damage and impact, because it’s not a question of IF this will happen to your organization, it’s WHEN.
“Your corporate narrative needs to live in the real world, but like any great story it needs to aspire to greatness despite human foibles,” says Gomez. “Pretending to be perfect or wearing rose-colored glasses can be just as problematic as making a wildly inappropriate statement. So your narrative has to be about the aspiration to be great and provide great products and services, but it also has to acknowledge mistakes and quickly offer remedies.”
To address the challenge of Glass Houses requires buy-in from all elements of your organization. Your company message needs to be infused into everything, from marketing, PR and customer service, to HR, product development. Actions speak louder than words. You need a deep and engaging narrative that connects your employees to your message. They, in turn, will convey the message you want your customers to receive—through their actions!
People Will Talk
The Challenge: How do you manage the endless waves of events and consumer actions impacting your brand at any given moment?
Companies and their brand managers need to come to terms with the reality that they are no longer the only voices in the conversation. The premise is simple but the execution is more complex. It begins with listening. You need to have the right tools and processes in place to hear and, most importantly, understand the consumer. Then comes the more difficult part: weaving the consumer into your corporate narrative. As Jeff Gomez has often stated, “You need to put in place mechanisms to validateand celebrate participation in your brand.”
The other big challenge within People Will Talk is the real-time aspect of pervasive communications. It’s not enough to listen, validate and celebrate. You need to construct a framework to deal with rapid response, whether to identify opportunity or quickly react to events that impact your brand.
A great example is the recent interplay with Kanye West and Zappos. West made said some unkind statements about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and his products during a podcast. Zappos responded with a clever bit of content, but that’s not the story. There was a flood of support from Zappos customers defending the brand. Because Zappos has done such a great job validating and appreciating their fans, they now have an army of brand advocates more than willing to participate in the conversation. More often we think of brand advocates as a means to increase brand awareness and help sell more products. However, in this case their value lay in literally rising to protect a brand they loved.
Consumers are far more empowered than they used to be. They can air their grievances. As a business you have to care. Why? Caring is profitable. Does the same thing apply in a B2B situation? “Sure,” says Gomez. “Like consumers, businesses can become disgruntled and complain, they can get together and air their grievances and use communication channels because you’re not treating them well.”
Conducting The Orchestra
The Challenge: How does your company orchestrate and steward your brand across divisions and communications channels, year after year?
There is a wide array of channels through which brands may communicate, from traditional media to cutting edge social and digital platforms. In addition, as we’ve seen with Glass Houses and People Will Talk, brands are not the only ones creating compelling and highly accessible content anymore.
“As social media continues to expand, every significant happening becomes one of the most written about events in human history, simply because nearly every single human has access to a public forum upon which they can express themselves,” says Gomez. “With writing and grammar correction software, and even greater ease of creating and posting videos, consumers are only going to become more empowered. Corporations and brands are growing frightened of this power, but the best way to deal with human beings, alone or collectively, is by listening. You can’t do that these days unless you have a distinct presence across multiple media platforms.”
It’s no longer enough to share the same message on multiple channels. Care needs to be taken to not only take advantage of the value proposition of each platform—e.g., print, video, TV, social—but to be sure all the messages are complimentary and add up to a satisfying whole.
You can think of all the possible communication channels and touch points as different instruments in an orchestra. As individual instruments they can make beautiful music, with unique sound and rhythmic qualities. However, when properly orchestrated in concert, they can make music that surpasses the sum of their parts.
Conducting the orchestra begins with conveying the right—and most resonant—messages. Then it’s a matter of devising the message so that it plays to the strengths of the selected platform, taking care to maximize the features and inherent value of each medium. And in the process it’s important to applaud the audience as well by promoting dialog and action. You have to be able to conduct the orchestra to integrate (end user) voice into the story.
There’s a production technique called transmedia that is being used to Conduct The Orchestra with great efficacy by the media and entertainment industries, and increasingly by progressive corporate communications departments.
Conducting The Orchestra is possibly the most complex aspect of corporate narrative. Current marketing efforts focused on content strategy are a step in that direction, but still nascent. Jonathan Mildenhall, VP Global Advertising Strategy for The Coca-Cola Company, was exposed to the technique when he met with Gomez and Starlight Runner to discuss the development of their popular “Happiness Factory” campaign.
“Transmedia helped us understand how the story arc and narrative of the Happiness Factory could evolve over time and how it could be used through different channels,” said Mildenhall inForbes Magazine, January 2013. The Happiness Factory transmedia campaign, which manifested the company’s corporate narrative in the form of a fantastical animated tour through a Coke factory, yielded volume results that included daily drinkers +7.3% and purchase intent +5.3%—remarkable by Coke’s standards. Coca-Cola has since become a pioneer in the transmedia approach to corporate narrative. In an act of bold transparency, they went so far as to publish it online as their Content 2020 strategy.
The More Things Change…
The world continues to grow more complex, straining the efficacy of not only traditional marketing and communications techniques, but how businesses communicate with their entire ecosystem. But as people become more intricately and potently linked with one another, we are discovering that strong messages are becoming more quickly and potently distributed. That is, providing the story is clear and compelling, and that the audience is encouraged to respond. The fundamental tenets of narrative remain unchanged. It's time to apply the most effective transmedia techniques to how businesses and organizations tell their story.
Alan Berkson is Director of Community Outreach for SaaS customer support company Freshdesk. You can follow him on Twitter: @berkson. You can follow Starlight Runner Entertainment CEO Jeff Gomez on Twitter: @Jeff_Gomez.