What we know as brand management is being replaced by a much more dynamic field where the ability to maintain a coherent and enticing corporate story is taking centre stage.
Although closely related, branding and storytelling have so many things that set them apart. The corporate story is growing up to be rather different from its parent – branding – and these two are finding themselves on the opposite ends of a big huge generation gap. As is often the case, the generation gap manifests itself through differences in mentality, outlook and the perception of self.
A little over a week ago, I attended a Radley Yeldar event which focused on how corporate storytelling is practised by some of the very best –the FTSE 100. The discussion revolved around the results of two large research projects recently published by Radley Yeldar, which revealed some very fascinating trends: “What’s the story 2012?” and “Connected storytelling 2012”.
I won’t be writing much about the results of this research here – RY have published detailed reports on their findings and one can find an extensive feature article on the topic in the May 10th issue of Marketing Week.
Instead I will outline the main messages which I took away from last week’s event and explore the possible implications of our transition into the multidimensional world of corporate storytelling.
Corporate story: the formula
According Mike Oliver, who talked in the opening part of the event, the concept of branding has gained some negative connotations over the last years as something cold, polished and not necessarily alive. He said that, in contrast, storytelling is a concept which everybody relates to because the human brain is wired to perceive the world in the form of a narrative.
He talked in detail about the qualities of a good corporate story, which include the context, the purpose, the secret weapon (how you are going to achieve the purpose), the reason to believe and the greater vision – comparing this formula to a good film trailer.
Depth of field
At first sight, the formula itself is not hugely different from the way we have been taught to develop and manage a brand. But I do see a major qualitative shift here. If we are to transition to corporate storytelling we have to reset our focus from the relatively shallow depth of field which is so characteristic of branding.
A brand is often described as a sum of unique benefits associated with a company. Brand managers are tasked with shaping and maintaining these associations in the minds of various stakeholders. The sharp focus on the elements of differentiation creates a relatively static picture of the company, one that doesn’t easily evolve over time. Also, as RY’s research has shown, differentiation is often taken for granted, with even large successful companies settling for the most obvious discriminators, such as “largest”, “global”, “leading”, and “international”.
The corporate story can easily adapt to the changes in the external and internal environments.
Corporate storytelling, however, implies a more dynamic representation of the company and a less simplistic one. We can continue to incorporate clear messaging into the corporate story, but not at the expense of detail, creativity and playfulness which would otherwise be blurred and relegated to the background. If thoroughly thought out, the corporate story can easily adapt to the changes in the external and internal environments and remain relevant without the need to have an extensive makeover every 5 years.
Breadth of engagement
Another advantage of focusing on the corporate story rather than the brand in all communication activities is the opportunity to increase stakeholder engagement across the whole board and in a fairly consistent manner.
According to Radley Yeldar “the corporate brand often complains that, unlike its consumer cousin, its audience is too broad to tell a compelling story to”. They then argue that storytelling is in fact an opportunity to build in a strong sense of purpose which will appeal to all of the right audiences, be it a specific segment or “anyone and everyone”.
I think that the far-reaching appeal of a good story does not only lie with its sense of purpose but also its incredible flexibility. We can tell a story in a different voice, in a different language, we can simplify it for kids or add a layer of complexity for the adult audience, we can go into a lot of detail for those who have time on their hands, and we can chuck out an abridged version for those who have only a minute to spare. Meanwhile, remaining consistent in all of the main messages.
This consistency is more important than ever. Stakeholders come into contact with companies through so many channels and these points of contact are increasing by the day. The companies must have a consistent and appealing story to tell if they are to benefit from all these extra dimensions of engagement. And while this seems like the world’s most obvious conclusion, in practice very few find the time and resources to make sure that all the chapters in their story actually line up into a beautiful narrative. If you work in a corporate environment, you will probably recognize the challenge.
If you do, you are not an exception. According to the second Radley Yeldar research which was discussed at last week’s event, the FTSE 100 generally fail to tell a consistent story and link between their digital channels, scoring an average of 26% in the category of “Connectedness”. According to Richard Coope, who was presenting on the topic, many companies are still completely lost in the digital space and there is a lot of progress to be made.
I will be looking forward to the next year’s “Connected storytelling” report, for I am hoping to see improved coherence in the way we communicate for our companies. I am certainly going to give it a good try in my line of work.