Brands need to master storytelling, or risk becoming irrelevant

You want your company to get coverage in the national press. But you’d ideally like them just to feature a couple of nice images of your handmade candles, with some prices and a web link. At a time of your choosing.

It doesn’t work like that anymore (if it ever did). To get the best coverage (and sustain it), brands need to have something to say. A press release announcing a, "New range of candles from Candleford candlemaker" just isn’t going to cut it. And if this seems like a joke, ask any journalist to share the contents of their press release-heavy inbox.

"Every brand has a story to tell," says Peter Mountstevens, managing partner at brand communications agency Taylor Herring, whose clients include Samsung, Paddy Power, Kelloggs, UKTV and Diageo. "On a basic level this is a story rooted in the service they provide, their reason for being and the history of the company," Mountstevens says, "These foundations combined with customer insights allow brands to distil a personality, with a distinct tone of voice and a clear view of their position and the world they exist in."

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Brand storytelling is hugely important if firms want to survive and thrive, says Mountstevens, "A recent study found that most people wouldn’t care if 74 per cent of the worlds brands disappeared tomorrow. This is worrying news for the majority of companies doing business today. The message is a clear one - whether you make toilet rolls or soft drinks, today every brand is an entertainment brand that needs to work hard at engaging their core consumers above and beyond their basic product offering."

The brands that are thriving, says Mountstevens, are the 'firms of endearment'. "These are the companies who have a clear manifesto, the companies who stand on their soapbox and consistently keep us entertained. Consumers have taken these brands to their hearts, they follow them on social media and enjoying hearing from them."

He adds, "These brands are now ingrained in their customers lives, they have become a friend (of sorts) and there is a sound commercial reason for this strategy. You are more likely to buy from a ‘friend’ than someone you don’t know."

So how can brands best work out what that story is?

The starting point is brand purpose, Mounstevens says, "How does a brand aim to make life better for their consumers? Everything stems from here. The answer will form a manifesto on what a brand stands for and who they are."

For example, Red Bull has evolved into one of the most powerful entertainment brands in the world, creating and curating its own content. The brand has its own TV and music studios, invents its own sports, sponsors world-class athletes and creates a seemingly endless stream of breath-taking, newsworthy, death-defying stunts. In short, says Mountstevens, "It ensures it remains a relevant and exciting part of the cultural conversations its consumers are having."

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What makes a good story?

Good guys, bad guys, triumph over adversity, morals and social good, happy endings. The same principles apply top brands that apply to bestsellers at the airport bookshop, says Mountstevens. He adds, "Having a clear view on what you stand for gives you a good grounding on everything you don’t stand for. Having an enemy (good vs bad) is never a bad thing because it gives you something to stand up and campaign for."

Mountstevens cites Jamie Oliver as a good example of this. "Every single programme in recent years from Jamie Oliver has been built on a campaign - identifying an enemy or an issue and doing the right thing; be it turkey twizzlers in school meals or the national lack of cooking skills." Similarly, Nike’s Just Do It campaign declared war on apathy, "Get up and go, get active."

But it can go badly wrong if not approached carefully. The worst examples, says Mountstevens, "are brands jumping into cultural conversations where they simply don’t belong in a vain and ill-thought-out attempt to be ‘relevant’. In the last year, we have seen brands namecheck and piggyback the likes of David Bowie and Prince’s deaths to try and be 'engaging'. If a brand interaction of story doesn’t feel authentic, its forced and an audience can see through that every single time."

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Conflict is key to a good story, says Caroline Florence, who teaches professionals how to improve the impact of their communication through storytelling, "Without it there is no story. Don’t downplay the challenges and the failures - use these to show how you have survived, what you have learnt, how you were able to turn things around."

Once you have the story, says Mountstevens, "Tell it over and over again in ever more engaging ways." Then, he says, "feel brave enough to let it go. Let the consumers and super fans own the narrative you have built. After all the public are often far more authentic, creative and engaging than most marketing departments."

Lawrie Jones, managing director of Bristol marketing agency, 42group, says that storytelling should come naturally to entrepreneurs: "It’s about creating a whole world that your customers can buy into. The best entrepreneurs create a world - sometimes out of nothing - that customers want to live in and are willing to pay to be a part of." Jones adds, "the principles are relatively simple, it’s about spending some time outside of your business to understand what makes you special. It’s about taking a dispassionate look at what factors makes you special, about visioning yourself within the market and matching your aspirations to your brand. It’s a detailed and complex process, but it’s essential that businesses do it."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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