Story branding – Storytelling in Communications 2

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The second part of the series I promised on using narrative and storytelling from the slide I showed the LGComms conference earlier this year. (Part 1 was Get the Story Straight). LGComms 2010 Uses of narrative slide.png

When I showed this slide at LGComms, I knew only to well that "Branding – the stories to attract outsiders" was misleading. It was intended for an audience of communications professionals with all the patterns and assumptions that I built up in my years in Marcom advising. Where the focus is on "how do we bring customers to us", "how do we persuade". A managerial approach, one at odds with ideas of complexity. In many ways, an approach at odds with reality – but with enough entrenched belief and supposed past practice that it still holds great sway.

For many people, therefore, a branding story is one that appeals to people and makes them feel positive about the organisation.

Assumptions are then:

  • there should be only a limited set of neat stories
  • it should end positively and only show the organisation at its best, error-free and perfect
  • it features the organisation, its services or products, in the lead roles

The very idea of branding is, of course, hotly debated. I'm part of the Medinge branding thinktank and even within that group there are differences of opinion:

  • it's a promise
  • it's a shortcut to a decision
  • it's reputation
  • it's patterns triggered in long-term memory (from another source – Dave Snowden)
  • it's in the mind of the consumer, not the producer

It's the last one that intrigues me most – and I think is the most useful – that your brand sits outside of your control and, often, at the outer reaches of your influence. If it sits with someone else, you can't direct your brand, you can only experiment with what actions make what changes to how it is seen.

One of the things you can do, however, is collect material as part of your day-to-day interactions with people. Organisations have opportunities all day everyday in call centres, through customer complaints, via frontline staff. Yet rarely do they take them – and even rarer do they allow the customers' true feelings to come through in those interactions. Instead they're channeled through processes and patterns or, at worst, a script on a screen.

If you want better branding and understanding, it comes back to gathering lots of stories from people – having them tell you what it means and from that seeing what your current brand is as an emergent result from the stories. It means being less prescriptive in how you gather your information, allowing people to give you the answers you don't want to hear, shocking those who design processes, but ultimately gaining a more accurate, more meaningful picture that allows for more straightforward actions in the future.

And for those still trapped in the idea of communicating back out as a way to reinforce the brand (it is, but it's a very limited way of working with your brand), it still has benefits. Once you've gathered the material and looked at how people see your organisation/product/service, you have right in front of you the material you then play back to disrupt or reinforce the patterns. Content and context and brand measurement all in one system – and all in formats that are inherently understandable and convincing, because it's natural and real examples, not some forced, cleaned-up and sterile version.

An example:

A conversation with Nottingham asked about their brand – more particularly what should their brand be? The working assumption was that Robin Hood came in there somewhere, but how? (As folklore experts can tell you, you've got so many different takes on Robin Hood, which one do you choose and what does that say?) I had – and have – no clear answer. I'd want to ask some more questions first –

  • catch local residents and ask about the past: what stories do they remember from their youth? stories about when they first came to the area?
  • ask tourists for impressions of arriving, of attractions, of experiences they've had while they've visited; even stories of how they booked (and how they chose where to go)
  • ask businessmen who've relocated and who haven't
  • feed stories to groups and ask them to index them – try the different versions of Robin Hood to see which ones are dominant in which audiences

All of these groups will have stories and have different takes. (Takes which would not come out of your average questionnaire or survey – it puts the question too far up front.)

And from all of those, there will be patterns – and from the patterns there will be really interesting helpful elements.

Look at the areas where tourists' positive stories are gathered, then look in that same space for stories from residents – then consider playing some of those back out into tourism campaigns. Use the material for podcasts/downloads for people coming to visit. Stories of playing in Sherwood Forest, perhaps?

Look for stories that drew businessmen to other areas – and then look for the comparable stories from your own area.

In short, gather the material and don't try telling people what you want them to hear. Instead, listen and pick pieces of real experience that either reinforce positive notions or start to disrupt negative ones.

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