Thought Leadership

Stop Telling Your Story. Tell Your Customer’s.

February 7, 2019

Storytelling. It’s such an often-used phrase that it’s becoming a cliché… and, as a result, losing its original meaning and value. This story is about brand —how we can best use stories to create brand engagement. And how those stories aren’t always about us.

The Power of Unreason in Brand Storytelling

At its root, the value of branding is the creation of irrational preference. Irrational preference is what keeps a customer purchasing even when a competitor has leap-frogged your offering. It’s what sustains price premium even in commodifying markets. It’s what buys the precious time and opportunity your brand needs to rebound in the midst of a public relations crisis.

No one, in the harsh light of reason, has ever affixed a corporate logo sticker to the bumper of their car. Or, after a cool-headed deliberative process, with a copy of that logo in hand, walked into a tattoo parlor. Debates. Spreadsheets. Comparison charts full of Harvey Balls. None of these tools create irrational preference.

But stories—when told properly—can.

Heroes, Sidekicks & Talismans in Brand Stories

When businesses think about the intersection of storytelling and brand strategy, the first question they should ask is, who am I telling a story about? Having grown up in the tech industry since the mid-90s, I’ve worked with a lot of engineering-oriented cultures, which tend to shine a spotlight on their product. On a pedestal. With grand crescendos of music swelling in the background. The product—or even the new feature—becomes the hero of the story. And that’s often a mistake.

There’s a role for product-focused messaging. But, when we make our products the heroes of our stories, we risk crowding our customers out of the narrative altogether. We become the obnoxious guy at the party, who can’t stop talking about himself.

Effective brand-building helps our customers tell better stories about themselves. They’re the hero of the story—not our brand or product. We’re there to enable that heroism, the loyal sidekick (Watson to their Holmes) or enchanted talisman (Luke’s lightsaber). The reflection they see of themselves in our brand relationship embodies how they want to live their best lives. If we help them tell that story, we build lifelong relationships that deliver deliriously irrational preferences for our brand.

Let’s compare two examples. One is recognizably a story, but without a way in for its customer. The other is a fantastically effective, customer-focused story…even though it lacks many of the traditional trappings of narrative.

Dilly Dilly? A Quest without a Customer

A fair amount of ink has already been spilled about Bud Light’s recent Super Bowl campaign. Much of it focused on their distracting crusade (literally, given the medieval trappings) against corn syrup. Yes, this ticked off America’s corn farmers, but leaving jilted agribusinesses aside, the real question is whether Bud Light’s telling a story that helps make a hero of its customer. While you watch the ad and enjoy the wisecracks, ask yourself, where is the customer in this story?

From that perspective, the spots chiefly confuse people. The brand focuses relentlessly on product—and, indeed, on a single ingredient in the product that has, until now, held no salience in the category. Is there corn syrup in beer? Do I care that there’s corn syrup in beer? Like many Super Bowl ads, the Bud Light campaign puts more effort into eliciting laughs than in telling a meaningful story that its customers can identify with. The ad is relentlessly inward-focused —what we do, the ingredients we use. The hero of this quest is Bud Light. And the quest itself is about the brand’s attempt to figure out how to differentiate itself in its own competitive set.

Ultimately, the campaign leaves no space in the story for the customer, who’s left wondering where they fit in. This is storytelling as navel-gazing, rather than building brand value.

Elegant Brand Stories Don’t Even Need Words

The Bud Light campaign is very clearly and explicitly a story—a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. But it’s not an effective story. Apple shows, again and again, how a brand can tell powerful brand stories without even observing the traditional structures and trappings of narrative.

Consider Apple’s “dancing shoes” campaign for AirPods. The goal of the campaign was to support the launch of a wireless, premium-priced earbud product. They could have focused on the product itself: how small and unobtrusive it is, how the removal of the wire prevents that awkward spaghetti-tangle in your pocket. Perfectly functional and a rational appeal to System 2 thinking. Instead, they went with this:

Apple could tell the story of how they’ve made a different kind of product—essentially, a story about themselves. But Bluetooth technology and miniaturized power systems figure as little in this ad as, well, corn syrup in most beer ads. Instead, Apple makes the customer the hero of the story. Liberation from a cable becomes transmuted into a much more powerful sense of liberation from gravity, as the customer dances along walls and ceilings, unconstrained. The AirPods function as a talisman, enabling us to participate in the liberating joy of music. All without a single explicit product claim.

I am liberated. I am joyous. This is the way we see ourselves, as customers, reflected in the mirror of Apple’s brand.

How do you reflect your customers back to themselves—not just in your advertising but across all the touchpoints of your brand experience? In what ways are you their sidekick, their talisman? And how are you helping them tell a story of themselves in which they are the heroes? Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are the foundation of long-lasting irrational preference. Let Escalent help you tell your customer’s story.

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Rob Stone
Rob Stone, Ph.D.
Chief Strategy Officer

Rob serves as Escalent's Chief Strategy Officer and head of Corporate Development. Over more than 25 years, Rob has created and led a number of insights companies along the path of delivering business impact for clients. As a consultant, he has helped numerous Fortune 500s build stronger brands, innovative products and more engaging customer experiences. A long-time contributor to the industry, Rob has served on many non-profit boards, including most recently as Chair of the Insights Association. A graduate of Columbia, UChicago and Northwestern, Rob will roll up his sleeves and lose himself happily in any thorny problem. He is an avid skier, cyclist, tennis player and golfer (where "avid" can be defined as: passion > talent...except golf, where passion >>> talent).