The Relationship between Brand and Story
The first time I heard the word "brand" I was maybe 10 years old. My dad came home with a short iron rod that was as big around as a ball point pen. It had a triangular handle on one end and his initials - RBT- written in reverse on the other. We didn't have any livestock or live on a farm. But, my dad clearly viewed these as trivial details. We were in Texas, where a belt without a name is just a piece of leather and he needed a brand. He used it sparingly. But, when he did, he would forever change an item. And, not just physically. He would take a product with no affiliation, a commodity, and make it unique and associated with him.
As any marketer can tell you, a brand is a lot more than initials. It's more than a logo. It's more than a sign. It is the emotional connection that people have with other things - companies, products, and people. Universally, the greater the brand, the greater the frequency of that emotional connection. Case in point, I still have a beat up old Orvis bag with "RBT" on it. It's 40 years old and in terrible shape. But, for me, the frequency of emotions tied to his brand are strong. And, those letters flood my mind with nostalgic stories from my youth. Because stories are what drive our emotions.
The Building Blocks of Emotional Connection
We all know when we hear a great story. It is a visceral experience. And, those who tell stories for a living - the makers of novels, documentaries, films and television - have mastered the science of bringing our emotions to the forefront. As a result, people pay hard earned money for their stories. This part is obvious. To the point of this post, it is the stories that make the actors and the characters they play the world's greatest brands. Over the past twelve years, The Walt Disney Company has purchased Pixar, Marvel, and LucasFilms. Yes, to create amazing content. But, also to commercialize the brands across theme parks, toys, video games and soft goods. This collection of businesses drives close to 3X more revenue than that of Disney's studio entertainment division.1
Of course, as a technology marketer, there is always a more specific goal in mind. If you answer to bottom of the funnel KPIs, you will be the first to point out that tears aren't leads and the emotional cup of hyper-converged infrastructure isn't necessarily running over. But, there is a middle ground. And, as a marketer, you have no choice but to find it. Because if you don't, your competitor will. And, they will form a relationship with your customer while your product moves closer to commoditization.
So, what is that middle ground? And, how can technology marketers use storytelling techniques to forge an emotional connection? Here are 6 initial tips that taken from how the entertainment business looks at story structure that you can use across your B2B marketing strategy:
1. Create Your Beginning, Middle and End
In Aristotle's "Poetics", he suggests that all stories have a beginning, middle and end. The same is true for your marketing strategy. In brand storytelling, the beginning is often the sexy stuff. The middle bridges the gap between thought leadership and consideration. And, the end, is ideally customer acquisition and customer success.
IDG's annual Customer Engagement Study notes that there are 12-18 decision makers involved in enterprise technology decisions, downloading between 6-8 assets to guide them on their journey. Yet, marketers rarely step back and try to predesign an entire content journey. Most don't craft stories. They craft assets. Meanwhile, awareness, demand generation and product marketing teams often work in isolation. As a result, nurture is frequently part of a digital strategy versus in the content strategy. So, do yourself a favor and outline the beats of a story before you start your writing your script.
2. Define Your Protagonist
Great stories generally have a main character. Does your story? Is it your brand, your product or your customer? It can go both ways, but things are almost universally more interesting if it isn't about you. For example, Apple's "shot on an iPhone" campaign is about the user. And, fittingly aligned with their brand of empowering the creativity inside of us or in other terms helping us "Think Different." You can apply a protagonist as you create single assets or across your entire strategy. If you get stuck wondering if who your protagonist should be, here are a few things that define a protagonist in a film or television show. The story is always one of her emotional journeys. She has the problem to solve, her goal is the motivating force in the movie. And, she will be the one who is forever changed (and hopefully improved) when the final credits role. Can your product, forever change your customer?
3. Hook the Audience Right Away
In this day and age, your reader is literally one click away from 50 unread emails, an endless cycle of breaking news, and floods of pictures of people they haven't seen since high school. So, how do you keep their attention? Film makers have used a story beat called the "Inciting Incident" (this is such a fundamental element of the Romantic Comedy genre that it has its own name the "Meet Cute"). This is the point in the first few moments of the movie when the protagonist's ordinary world is changed forever. It's the initial call to action. Here's the bad news. While filmmakers have the luxury of a few minutes, you don't. You have to hook them in the first two or three sentences. Can you do it?
4. The "Secret Formula" for a Plot
Draw from your pain points. Are you having a challenge getting anonymous visitors to convert on your site? Is lead nurturing more of an ideal state than a reality? Take a look at the formula for "plot" - that abstract force that pulls you from your seat into a story to see if it can help. Most would say creating a great plot is an art, but it has a mathematical foundation. Plot = Goal + Conflict. If you are ever looking at your watch and saying to yourself, wow, this is a long movie, chances are there is a weak plot. If you have a problem with the plot of your brand story, your audiences might not look at their watch, but they will fall out of your nurture stream. Looking for a remedy? Try playing producer and start asking questions: does the main character have a goal? Is there enough conflict? Are the obstacles heavy enough? What is blocking the success? In story, all sorts of elements can increase the tension to speed things up. For example, this is a primary role of the antagonist.
5. Don't Put Your Story in a Content Dumping Ground
While a website isn't the silver screen, it can be purpose-built for holding a brand story. If nurture and demand is your goal, don't create an unfocused blog with unrelated assets piled on top of each other. Structure a digital experience that moves the user through a content journey seamlessly. The right experience should clearly showcase the beginning, middle and end in the correct order. And, it should let prospects move up and down that story based on their specific interest level and buying stage. You can build content to make sure we can always find the breadcrumbs and get back on the path. And, use data to capture digital footprints for retargeting and nurturing. IDG has a new product - the native playlist - that we have designed to act as this framework.
6. Do A Script Reading
At multiple points prior to film production, the cast and crew get together for readings. The cast, the director, the cinematographer, the editor, screen writers, the production designers, the producers all sit around a table and live out the film. While the film is the granddaddy of "waterfall projects", this is as close as it gets to being agile. Little changes are made on the fly. And, it works. In my experience, people usually swim in their lanes and the roles are clear. But, everyone's expert perspective does contribute to the overall success of the project. This practice is perfectly transferable to brand storytelling. In fact, it should be a lot easier. The content team can present the beat outlines of the story. The planning/ customer insights team can validate the approach. The awareness team can provide input on how to pull and engage with audiences. The demand generation teams can focus on lead capture and nurture. And, of course, the analytics team can make sure we are mapping the right KPIs to the content and the build from the start. The advantage to this approach is you can get buy in, or adjust on the fly, as needed.
Great brand storytelling is a pillar of any thought-leadership program and it should tie all the way down to demand. And, while it isn't an easy task, there are ways to make things feel effortless for the customer. And, for creating that experience, you will be rewarded.