Branding Is Dead: Long Live the Corporate Story!

corporate story Branding Is Dead: Long Live the Corporate Story!

Richard Coope at Radley Yeldar’s “Connected Storyteling” event.

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.

Communication and Change: The Story of 3 Dutch Brands

eacd communication and change Communication and Change: The Story of 3 Dutch Brands

Debating change and communication: Davis Brilleslijper, Nanne Bos and Pieter Schaffels

Communication is essential in the time of change – we know that already. This is what we read in all professional literature on the subject, this is what they tell us at school. Nonetheless, this happy marriage of communication and change continues to invite discussion, debates and speculations.

That’s the thing about change: it’s usually unpredictable, rarely expected and almost never wanted. Objectively, organizational change is influenced by a great number of external and internal factors; subjectively, we all experience and deal with change in our own very different ways. This makes for an exciting topic and a difficult one to tame into a single model or action plan.

While models and prêt-à-porter templates certainly have their place in corporate communication, I also strongly believe in the power of story-telling. Learning from the experience of others applies wonderfully to the topic of communication and change management.

Two weeks ago, I attended a regional EACD debate “Organizing Communications and Aligning with Other Functions in Times of Disruptive Change”, which took place in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The event revolved around 3 case-studies presented by corporate communicators from three NL-based companies. Here are several stories plus a couple of lessons which I took home from the debate.

Ordina: Make it brutally honest

In the opening case-study, Pieter Schaffels, Director Corporate Communications & Investor Relations at Ordina, talked about his company’s quest for survival amidst severe external and internal crises. Ordina’s rise to incredible heights in the mid-1990s and their near-fall in the last few years led the company to take on an extensive change programme.

Ordina refers to itself as a Benelux-wide knowledge provider, which offers a combined IT/business process expertise to a range of stakeholders.

Schaffels, who has been with Ordina since the crisis hit, said that while “it is quite typical for companies to shut down all communications when they are in trouble” his team took the opposite course of action. The company launched intensive restructuring and refinancing programmes, which, from the communications point of view, represented an opportunity to regain trust and rebuild reputation.

Communications is neither the privilege nor the task of a communications department.

Schaffels acknowledged that choosing refinancing as the central theme for communication may have been unusual, but in the circumstances it was the most effective and the shortest path to regaining trust. “We had to be brutally honest with ourselves, our stakeholders and our employees,” he said, “It definitely paid off to be authentic, and we are now ready for the future.”

Ordina’s communication and change strategy included a range of activities: pre-visiting large shareholders, press and analyst conferences, investor road shows, stakeholder dialogue events and more. Schaffels also highlighted a long list of lessons.

For me personally, the most insightful was his reminder that communications is neither the privilege nor the task of the communications department. We often forget that, as it does go somewhat against the grain, considering all this effort that we, communicators, have put into consolidating our weight and strength within the corporate setting.

Nationale Nederlanden: Brand as a Mr. Guide

The guiding role of communications – as opposed to that of control – was also well illustrated in the presentation by Nanne Bos, Director Brand & Reputation Management at Nationale Nederlanden, a Dutch insurance company.

Bos made a case for the wide-scale brand transformation strategy that his company has been undergoing in the last several years, pointing out that rebranding in the times of Europe-wide crisis is a double-edged sword. Along with the usual dangers of initiating a change in a shaky environment when all the stakeholders are looking for is stability, there are also a number of hidden opportunities. “This instability reveals the bare truth about the brand, which communicators can use to build a rebranding programme based on very valuable insights.”

“We found out that Nationale Nederlanden was a trusted household brand, but at the same time very stuffy and old-fashioned,” said Bos. “The brand was poorly maintained, and there has been no major revision since the late 1960s.”

Start with a central programme and then let go.

In some detail Bos covered the rebranding process, which included extensive research and follow-up. He said that Nationale Nederlanden chose to build a brand which provided vision and behavioural guidance to its internal audiences. According to him, this model stimulates a better financial performance, by taking into account the company’s strategy, organisation and processes.

In his take-home messages, Bos echoed the previous speaker saying that rebranding has to be planned and executed by the communications, but that the actual implementation must be left to the organization. “Start with a central programme and then let go,” he said.

Delta Lloyd: everything that can matter, will matter

For the third case-study of the debate, David Brilleslijper, Director Corporate Communications & Investor Relations at Delta Lloyd’s Group, took the floor.

His talk on the challenges of a company going through the process of initial public offering revealed a four-stage communication strategy. It included the kick-off during the official IPO preparations, first marketing efforts at the time when the IPO ambitions are made public, full-fletched marketing in the period around the IPO date announcement, and the equally challenging follow-up in the new environment as a listed company.

Brilleslijper said that one of the keys to successful transition and stakeholder management is to get communication involved in the process as early as possible.

“In this environment of market sensitivity, the company finds itself under an omnipresent magnifying glass, therefore everything that can matter – will matter,” he stressed. “Communications have to co-write the equity story, as we are the ones who have to translate it to our many stakeholders in a consistent, helpful and transparent manner.”