Branding Beyond Storytelling

Brands tell stories. Stories will always be important, and people will continue to love listening to them. Like one of my friends recently pointed out — binge watching is a testimony to the fact that attention spans are not shortening, they are just more selective. The bottom line is this: if one has a good story, people will listen. The question is who do people want to listen to these stories from? From brands with the (ultimate) motive to sell or from storytellers who simply have a great story to tell?

And even among all the brands trying to tell stories, will people listen to stories from Apple, Tesla, Under Armour or would they want to listen to these stories from a brand of toothpaste, detergent powder, or even a car company that’s doing the same things it was doing 10, 20 or 50 years ago?

More importantly, even if they listen to or like a story from toothpaste, detergent powder or a traditional car company, does it really change people’s behavior?

Watch this recent ad for LG’s new smartphone

It has everything — action, adventure, likable celebrity, humor, and the length of the film that creative directors, ad filmmakers and producers always want so that they can tell the full story.

Will people like it? Sure.

Will they share it? Probably.

Will they consider buying the phone the same way as they like it? I’m not so sure.

(Last year Samsung had the most popular content globally for any brand on YouTube, yet Samsung kept losing market share all through the year. People liked the content but they simply didn’t buy.)

Good story (content) is and always will be very important. At the same time it’s also true that good content by itself is not good enough.

Having said that, can good content create consideration or awareness? Yes, it absolutely can.

In developing countries with lower literacy rates and lower Internet penetration, TV is still the mainstay. As a result, great TV-centric content will continue to be popular in India. And that’s good for now. But if we leave infrastructure (Internet) and socioeconomic factors (affordability and literacy) aside, marketing’s excessive focus on content is based on an assumption that a product is unchangeable in the short/medium term. A product is usually tweaked (not changed) every 12 (if lucky) or 36 or more months. But content is easier to change. It can be changed every hour/day/ week/month/once in a few months. It made sense that marketers and brand owners focused more on content.

But it doesn’t have to be like this anymore. At least not in more developed countries like the US, South Korea, Japan, China, UK and other developed markets which have high penetration of computing and mobile Internet. Fortunately, in these markets everyday life is increasingly mediated by connectivity and computing. People are doing more and more things in the digital space. As a result, the “interface” to this digital world has become more important. The best part about the interface is that it can change much faster, and it can be personalized. Smart integration of product development and manufacturing can finally lead to the development of personalized products. (More on this a little later). Companies like Accenture Interactive refer to the Internet of Things (IoT) and interface revolution as the dawn of “living services,” wherein products or services evolve as users interact with them (look at app update cycles on our smartphones as a reference). This also marks the evolution of branding from the Product stage, through the Image stage, and now to the (User/Customer) Experience stage. This evolution of branding is mapped across two variables (As seen in the image above:

  1. Time
  2. Information with the customer

Instead of only focusing on talking about the product and telling a story about it, brands can now start investing in making the product better through smart applications of technologies such as sensors (that are becoming increasingly affordable). Data from sensors that track usage behavior can help in making the product and its user experience not only better, but finally personal. Here’s a visualization of one such scenario based on application of Internet of Things (IoT): 
Manufacturers of a skincare product, like lotion, could partner with an air conditioning company to bundle solutions that recommend the use of lotion based on the type of air conditioning used, overall weather conditions and the climate of the region that the user is located. Skin care marketers could turn a profit not only by selling lotion, but they can also monetize personalized recommendations and track the state of users’ skin. Not to mention that this would ultimately lead to the creation of personalized skincare products (= better value for people and higher margin for business). This could well be an example of ‘IoT for skincare’.

I personally look at this as a big opportunity for marketers to do things instead of just saying stuff. By focusing on customer experience, marketers finally have a chance to play a bigger role in the business and the boardroom. They can shape new revenue streams much more today than they ever could in the past.

New brands and Internet-first companies already think like this, and thus invest more resources in developing a better product than advertising or promoting it. They know that if the product is outstanding, people will talk about it and more people will find out about it.

Traditional marketers can do this too. They need to think differently. And maybe the marketing organization also needs to be structured differently to be able to work with new technology experts more closely. To make this happen, they need to think across disciplines and departments to understand the full range of capabilities and applications of emerging technologies. This will allow them to visualize how to enhance user experience through the use of such technology. They no longer need to rely only on messaging and stories.

The best part of all this is that when brands behave this way, people start to experience the benefits and tell their own stories and experiences. They talk about how the brand is great because it delivers something for them. And this is as much, if not more valuable (and cost effective), than any commercial message. This is how users will start to own the brand — something we have merely talked about in the past.

Content, by itself, is not enough also because we are living in a time when brands are less trusted than before. Many brands in categories like FMCG have lost credibility, while users have much more control over media than before. Reviews and advocacy play a much bigger role than brand claims.

In spite of all these recent challenges, brands are alive and will always be. The only difference is that the way we go about building brands is more diverse. While content is a great tool available to marketers, technology is offering a lot more to branding than that.


Chart from Tim Buesing (Twitter: @tbuesing) at Semi Permanent Wellington design event on November 5/6th, 2015 [#spwgtn15]

Rights to all brands and photos remain with the owners. No ownership is claimed.

Views expressed here are personal and do not represent those of my present or past employers.

I am not personally or commercially associated with any of the brands or businesses that I have mentioned above.

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