The Future of Authentic Branded Stories

I recently watched Gary Vaynerchuk’s DailyVee 18. Not only did he sing “That Thing you do” by the Wonders, but he got into it about how Brands need to not only tell stories people want to hear/ see (e.g. Budwiser’s puppy/ horse/ rancher comercial series), but stories that are high in value and authentic (e.g. dj khaled on Snapchat). I’m continually inspired by Gary and what he and his team are doing for Brands throughout the world. They are finding ways of telling stories that actually matter and grab our attention. I’m excited for the next 20 years of advertising that Gary is going to be leading, because the game is changing from interruption marketing (think youtube pre-roll ads, website banner ads, radio and TV commercials), to permission marketing (think Native content found on YouTube, Pinterist, Instagram, Facebook, or Snapchat). Just like with Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook, Ads are going to become more an more native; they will actually not just “add value” (which is a cheap way of selling), but Brands will start to contribute to the conversation and “give value.” If Brands don’t make this shift, they will become irrelevant.

What does this mean for you?

As Brands become more and more personal, it is our job as consumers to become even more engaged with each other, telling our own stories and sharing our own perspectives about how products and services are positively and negatively bring value to our lives. As more and more commerce goes on-line (there is still lots of room to grow on-line commerce), and where more and more people have higher levels of communication with each other, it is helpful to remember that we are re-entering an age where word-of-mouth, which will make or break a Brands reputation.

This isn’t new. Ideas have always spread via word of mouth, it’s merely becoming easier and easier. Think back to 100 years ago when there was one or two stores in each town: two blacksmiths, two bakers, two candlestick makers. Now, if one of the candlestick makers always made candles that burned for ten hours, where strong and sturdy, and had a life-time guarantee, while the other candlestick maker told the town they made the best candles, burned for 20 hours, but in reality, had a product that often broke before the customer got home, only burned for 15 hours, and would never take refunds, how long would the second shop last in the very small town? Sooner or later, word would spread about how the first candlestick maker actually cared about the product and the people, while the other maker was unscrupulous and taking advantage of folks.

Just like word-of-mouth would spread in that small town — from person to person — over dinner, or at the local bar, word-of-mouth is not only spread through face-to-face conversations, but via our social media platforms. And this is hugely important for us as consumers to remember. With a single Tweet, or a snap of a photo posted to Instagram we can brodcast to the world our joy or displeasure of a product, service or experience we’ve had with a Brand. With the advent of these new social networks, we now have a massive opportunity (and responsibility) to sway the impact of Brands stories at a much faster pace and with greater impact.

Branded Stories are now a Two-Way Conversation in the Public

As followings grow, trends increase, and stories go viral, Brands will need to become even more engaged with their audiance. No longer are Brands the only ones holding the microphone, shoving their story infront of us whenever they choose (as they were able to do since the dawning of TV and Radio). Now, they will have to actually be a part of the conversation about the story they are telling and be more transparent and authentic in the practice of their marketing of products and services.

As it’s been, it is our responsibility — as consumers — to engage back with our producers and retailers to assure we are receiving the story they are selling. It is our job to qualify those stories and to make sure the relationships we have established with these Brands are acutally good for us, for the world, and for others.

A Path of Authenticity

Transparency and traceability is becoming more and more of an important part of the transaction when we buy something: where did the coffee come from (think Specialty Coffee’s Direct Trade Model e.g. Intelligentsia), what was the name of the women who made my shirt (think EverLane’s Radical Transparency), what were the working and political conditions where the precious metals that make up my phone or tablet (think Intel’s conflict-free movement), etc.

Not only are Brands beginning to change their storytelling model out of necessity, but they are seeing financial benefit along the supply chain for doing so. Real value occurs when companies treat each level of supply like a relationship. When companies change their model from seeking shareholder approval to creating stakeholder value everyone wins (Think about the Certified B Corp movement championed by Patagonia). As consumers, it is our job to demand that level of transparency and authenticity and speakout when it is not there.

The Hard Truths and Hope of the Future

Now, will every story we hear over the next 20 years actually be authentic and give value, and bring about world peace? No. Primarily because marketers tell us stories we want to hear, and then we continue to re-tell ourselves stories we want to believe. For example, stories we really like to belive are told at the grocery stores on the labels of organic and local, dairy and produce Brands. Thanks to James Hoffmann’s e-news letter, I read an article about the UK’s Tesco creating fictitious Brand names to sell outsourced produce under the guise of being “locally farmed.” With this reality, many Brands only talk about the things they know will sell. Often the whole picture of true stories are too heavy, too raw, too honest (e.g. news stories of Nike’s sweat-shop factories in the 90’s and 00's). Yet, with greater involvement and a demand for traceability from the communities who buy products or services, along with a greater level of authenticity from Brands, and higher levels of transparency along the supply chain, the value of the work done at every level along the trade may become more meaningful and congruent for the whole supply chain, one story at a time (e.g., Cotopaxi’s Luzon Del Día backpack).

It is my hope, over the next decade and beyond, we’re going to see a lot more Brands becoming more self-aware, more transparent and more engaged in their community. These Brands are going to win. As consumers, we need to practice the same hard work of self-awareness, transparency and contribute to the conversation, shaping the world we live in. If we can do this work together, this may be the result: instead of consumers reflecting the Brand they are wearing, our world may begin to look like Brands reflecting the values, wants and needs consumers and producers truly desire.