What it says on the tin
There is a lot of talk about how products should tell stories. I will argue that it is more valuable to think of the product as a character in a story rather than as a story in itself.
First of all, why exactly are stories an effective way of communicating?
Narratives help us categorize and remember information. In order to remember a large amount of numbers, for example, memory experts advise us to construct a narrative in which the numbers appear.
Our culture and our personal and national identities are made up by narratives. Our perception of what it means to be an Australian is derived from stories about the first fleet, war heroes, sports triumphs, the treatment of the aboriginals etc, etc.
Stories our parents and teachers tell us socialize us and teach us dominating moral values, while myths and religious stories help explain existential and natural phenomena.
All these stories are updated and renewed for each generation like a gigantic game of Chinese whisper played throughout history; thereby constantly changing how we indivudually and collectively perceive ourselves and the world around us.
As stories create sticky messages and help define a brand, they are a vital component in positioning a brand and making it relevant in peoples’ lives, and should thus be a part of any communication strategy. What then is wrong with seeing a brand in terms of being a story which needs to be told?
There are a few problems with a one-sided emphasis on the brand as a producer of stories:
When marketers talk about narratives they talk about carefully constructed stories which are to be communicated to an audience to solve a carefully researched problem (or so they tell the client). They may be authentic or fictional, but nevertheless conveys a sense of finality; a story has a past – which serves to explain the present – but no future.
A constructed story, authentic or not, also implies that it is controlled. Effective marketing today requires letting go of control.
A brand which has its entire identity and public persona tied to its past will be less than credible when attempting to meet new demands from a continuously changing society. A brand with a history of listening to, and accommodating, its customers, will be much more credible when doing so. It will identify new trends sooner and be proactive rather than reactive. Perhaps it will even be responsible for the movement that creates a trend or demands a change in the first place.
Also, it is an arrogant view. Gone are the days where brands could get away with preaching their gospel in mass-media. However, many brands still have delusions of grandeur and behave as if they have an a priori omnipresence in the minds of consumers; that their particular story is worthy of infinite repetitions. The sooner companies accept that they must earn our trust and attention, the more successful and effective will they be in building the necessary relationships. This is not done by telling their own story, but by listening to others’.
So if viewing the brand as a producer of stories is incompatible with effective marketing in today’s environment, what is the solution?
Rather than independent storylines, brands must perceive themselves as a character in another, overarching narrative; that of the society in which it operates.
The brand is but one of many characters whose histories are of equal importance. Everyone fights for attention, trust and respect and to make friends and build relationships.
Consumers expect brands to interact with them. Brands creates relationships with other characters in the overarching cultural narrative, and involving power; various degrees of love and hate; trust and respect, these relationships are similar to human relationships.
The same way our culture and society are constantly evolving through interaction and communication (symbolic interactionism – Mead and Blumer), so are people’s personalities. The actions of each character influence society and the other characters; and each character is in turn influenced by the evolving narrative.
As a brand doesn’t exist in a vacuum, they too will inevitably change; it is up to each company to what degree they will change for the better. Typically large corporations are less flexible and more insistent to preserve the status quo; thereby maintaining their powerful position in the market. They falsely see change as the beginning of the end, while it in fact is fighting the inevitable which will ultimately lead to their downfall.
For change to be of value, one must see oneself as someone capable of change. Society evolves, the people in it evolves, and so brands must evolve too.
Companies must allow others to participate in writing their story and their evolution will be more successful as a result. For change to be constructive, one must listen.
When engaging in a dialogue, the nature and content of the interaction must be negotiated with the other participants.
During this interaction participants will seek to collaborate on solutions for the future benefit of all parties involved. Sustainable relationships aren’t created by bragging of the past and refusing to change (someone who insists to only talk about themselves will not be the centre of the party; how much fun is it to see the same ad for the twentieth time?); they are created by being flexible and willing to discover and consider new ideas.
And change is good; it is learning from experience that enables us to improve as people and brands.
I don’t deny that for many products there is an advantage to have a history and tradition to refer to. A brand’s history and stories are an important factor in defining it, and should not be surpressed. However, the stories should mainly be utilized to inform present and future actions rather than merely replicating the past; actions which in themselves will convey the brand’s character and thus its history. But it will also enable the brand to be proactive and forward thinking and to engage in a dialogue with other characters.
Viewing the brand in a larger context also provides us with a less abstract, more pragmatic, framework; making it easier to apply storytelling elements to communication practices.
One of my problems with the old narrative concept is to understand how exactly it should be applied to brand-building in practice. It is easy to tell a story in print (copy) and TV (script), but how do you convey a narrative with a beginning, middle and an end in social media where you can’t control it? And how do you tell an authentic story while never failing to comply with demands of being entertaining (especially when interrupting someone else’s entertainment)? Characters are flexible and complex, stories are inflexible – already written – and simple – if people are to remember them.
It is easy to construct characters and storylines to convey some sort of attitude, but is it really credible or sustainable? In today’s environment, one must show rather than tell. Consumers demand action rather than conversation, and one must show through interaction who the brand is and what it stands for. This way stories are still created, but instead of retelling pre-written ones, new ones are acted out as they are created in realtime. The emphasis is on staying in character; a character which embraces inevitable changes rather than fighting it.