3 Steps To Telling a Brand Story, Socially

My friend and colleague Chad Horenfeldt of Influitive posted something great the other day. The focus of his blog post was the challenges of email marketing nowadays, but I was quite taken by what he wrote about the importance of storytelling – that is, narrative, to us lit geeks – in marketing, after Gary Vaynerchuk:

“Marketers need to communicate what the story of their organization is (its value proposition). To get the attention of potential buyers, marketers need to engage with their audience. Social media is a great channel to use for this purpose but it can’t be used as a “blasting platform”. You need to really engage your audiences.”

Okay, we know this. Anyone who’s been in social media for any length of time understands that social media platforms are for engagement, not advertisement; that it’s a conversation, not a broadcast (or even a narrowcast). This is old hat.

Where Chad takes it to the next level is here:

“While I agree with Gary that storytelling will win the day as it is the best way to convey a message, it goes well beyond the mainstream areas of social media… Marketers should be leveraging their best customers – their advocates – to help spread this story. It should not just fall on the company to be the storytellers.Your customers and other influencers can assist here. Would you be more included to open or respond to an email that came from a company or from a friend or colleague of yours?”

This is one of the most crucial aspects of social marketing (which, as Chad mentions, goes beyond just email and the mainstream social media channels).  Exceptional social marketing is wholly cross-channel, inclusive and interdisciplinary; it is also radically engaging, and it recruits consumers to help tell the public story.

Here are three of the most important steps your brand can take to help you get there.

1. Establish Exceptional Brandmarks

Successful fashion companies are masters of this. Chanel, for instance, co-opts its target consumer as a brand ambassador through the combination of very brand-specific accessories styling, including prominent brand logo on most pieces, and high price point. Each person who carries a Chanel handbag, generally a wealthy and well-dressed woman, becomes part of the brand’s story: ostensibly one of elegance, but also one of exclusivity, which creates aspiration.

(This is also why counterfeiting is such a problem for a luxury brand: misuse of a company’s brandmark disrupts the brand’s narrative about the kind of person who uses its products. See, for instance, Burberry’s mid-2000s brand crisis in the UK.)

It’s not just the great fashion houses that do this, though. Innocent Drinks, the UK smoothie company, is one of my favourite examples of brandmark best practices on social media. For example:

Can you spy Innocent’s brandmark? It’s the little angel sketch in the corner. Innocent’s social media channels are full of fun content like this: entertaining, highly shareable and engagable, and always subtly brandmarked… so you know who’s amusing you, but it comes across as a service to you rather than an overt request from you to purchase.

(In fact, all good marketing is about providing value to the consumer – and successful brand storytelling provides value at every stage of the engagement process. We’ll talk more about that a different day.)

2. Watch Your Tone

Again, Innocent Drinks is a master of tone. As someone with a lot of education in English and a copywriting background, I am a huge admirer of Innocent’s brand tone. They’ve successfully balanced tongue-in-cheek silliness and whimsy with endearing likeability – a balance that’s very, very difficult to strike. For instance:

The use of lowercase lettering suggests a level of unassuming friendliness, the graphics are bold, simple and endearing in the style of a modern picture book, and the pun is deliberately cute.

Just as style is an essential aspect of a piece of literature, a brand’s tone is an essential aspect of its story – and therefore, its positioning in the marketplace. Innocent positions itself as a bit of an underdog, a fun little company started by two friends who cooked up some smoothies on a whim. It’s pure and natural, but only because it’s so carefree; it certainly wouldn’t do anything untoward, like put trombones in your smoothies. It’s there to take care of you.

Meanwhile, it’s one of the market leaders in the UK in all of its categories. And part of the reason is that it positions itself as a friend, not a product. In doing so, it makes itself highly shareable.

3. Advocate Messaging

One of the more important tools in the modern PR and social media toolboxes nowadays is the “brand ambassador”. A kind of functional descendant of the traditional brand spokesperson, the brand ambassador is more subtle about his or her ambassadorship. Often, s/he is a blogger in a particular lifestyle market, like food, fashion or travel, who is given free products or services and/or paid to discuss the brand in question. An example is the recent Contiki Thai #NoRegrets tour, which sent a dozen bloggers – including Toronto’s Casie Stewart (who has spoken in my class at York University) – to Thailand for a whirlwind luxury trip that was thoroughly documented on Instagram and YouTube.

When we talk about “advocate messaging”, though, we’re not just talking about official brand ambassadors. We’re talking about getting all of your consumers involved in your brand story. You can do that by:

  • Creating highly engaging brand-relevant content that provides value to your fans, and that they will want to share
  • Using broad calls to brand-relevant action, such as a day of action, a collaborative project or process, or a shared priority – this can and often should be done in all of your media, not just social media
  • Fostering brand communities, either within your proprietary channels (like Harley-Davidson does with its Harley Owners Group) or outside of them (like Rebecca Minkoff’s advertising support of the independent Purse Forum)
  • Actively responding to reviewers and other discussants on independent review sites
  • Creating an exceptionally positive customer service experience, every time

If you’re the only one out there telling your brand story, you’re just one voice in the mob. But if you can utilize the tools of branding and social outreach to help your consumers carry your story out into the world… then you’re really getting somewhere.