The relationship between brand and story
The first time I heard the word “brand,” I was maybe 10 years old. My dad came home with a short iron rod as big around as a ballpoint pen. It had a triangular handle on one end and his initials – “RBT” – written in reverse on the other. We didn’t have any livestock or live on a farm. But my dad clearly viewed these as trivial details. We were in Texas, where a belt without a name is just a piece of leather, and he needed a brand. He used it sparingly. But, when he did, he would forever change an item. And not just physically. He would take a product with no affiliation, a commodity, and make it unique and associated with him.
As any marketer can tell you, a brand is much more than initials. It’s more than a logo. It’s more than a sign. It’s the emotional connection people have with other things – companies, products, and even other people. Universally, the greater the brand, the greater the frequency of that emotional connection. Case in point, I still have a beat-up old Orvis bag with “RBT” on it. It’s 40 years old and in terrible shape. But, for me, the frequency of emotions tied to his brand are strong. And those letters flood my mind with nostalgic stories from my youth. Because stories are what drive our emotions.
The building blocks of emotional connection
We all know when we hear a great story. It’s a visceral experience. And those who tell stories for a living – the makers of novels, documentaries, films, and television have mastered the science of bringing our emotions to the forefront. As a result, people pay hard-earned money for their stories. This part is obvious. Over the past two decades, The Walt Disney Company has purchased Pixar, Marvel, LucasFilms, Maker Studios, and many others. Yes, to create amazing content. But also to commercialize the brands across theme parks, toys, video games, and soft goods. This collection of businesses drives close to 3X more revenue than that of Disney’s studio entertainment division.
These companies are worth so much because storytelling is a universally sought-after experience. Stories allow audiences to connect, feel, aspire, learn, and relate. Of course, as a technology marketer, there is always a more specific goal in mind. If you answer to revenue goals, you’ll be the first to point out that tears aren’t leads, and the emotional cup of hyper-converged infrastructure isn’t necessarily running over. But establishing these connections is worth it. Connections establish a relationship with buyers, build trust, and inevitably help your sellers convert opportunities and retain customers. This year, when Salesforce brought the Foo Fighters to Dreamforce they were investing in emotional connection. People love the Foo Fighters. How do you compete with that? Or as Virgil wrote 2000 years ago – aka Omnia Vincit Amor (aka – love conquers all).
There is a middle ground between feeding your pipeline and building connections. And, as a marketer, you have no choice but to find it. Because if you don’t, a competitor will, and they’ll form a relationship with your customer while your product moves closer to commoditization.
So, how do technology marketers find that middle ground and use storytelling techniques to forge an emotional connection? Here are 6 first steps, taken from how the entertainment business looks at storytelling, to craft your B2B brand story:
1. Create your beginning, middle, and end
In Aristotle’s “Poetics,” he suggests that all stories have a beginning, middle, and end. The same is true for your marketing strategy. In brand storytelling, the beginning is often the sexy stuff. The middle bridges the gap between thought leadership and consideration. And the end is ideally customer acquisition and customer success.
Foundry’s 2023 Role & Influence Study found that as many as 25 IT decision-makers are involved in enterprise technology decisions, downloading 6 assets on average to guide them on their journey. Yet, marketers rarely step back and try to pre-design an entire content journey. Most don’t craft stories. They craft assets. Meanwhile, awareness, demand generation, and product marketing functions often work in isolation. As a result, nurture is frequently part of the digital strategy versus the content strategy. So, do yourself a favor and outline the beats of a story before you start writing your script.
2. Define your protagonist
Great stories generally have a main character. Does yours? Is it your brand, your product, or your customer? It can go both ways, but things are almost universally more interesting if they aren’t about you. For example, Apple’s “Shot on an iPhone” campaign is buyer-centric. And fittingly aligned with their brand of empowering the creativity inside of us or, in other terms, helping us “Think Different.” You can apply a protagonist as you create single assets or across your entire strategy.
If you get stuck wondering who your protagonist should be, consider a few things that define a protagonist in a film or television show. The story is always one of her emotional journeys. She has a problem to solve. Her goal is the motivating force in the movie. And she will be the one who is forever changed (and hopefully improved) when the final credits role. Can your product forever change your customer?
3. Hook the audience right away
Your reader is always one click away from 50 unread emails, an endless cycle of breaking news, and floods of pictures of people they haven’t seen since high school. So, how do you keep their attention? Filmmakers have used a story beat called the “Inciting Incident” (this is such a fundamental element of the Romantic Comedy genre that it has its own name, “The Meet Cute”). The Inciting Incident is the point in the first few moments of the movie when the protagonist’s ordinary world is changed forever. It’s the initial call to action.
The bad news? While filmmakers have the luxury of a few minutes, you don’t. You have to hook them in the first two or three sentences. Can you do it?
A great hook should be emotional, relevant, and memorable. With such little space, each word should serve a purpose and contribute to the overall impact. You should experiment with different combinations of elements to find the right balance that captivates your audience. The goal is to excite and entice readers to care about what comes next and want to know more.
4. The “secret formula” for a plot
Draw from your pain points. Do you need help getting anonymous visitors to convert on your site? Is lead nurturing more of an ideal state than a reality? Take a look at the formula for “plot,” that abstract force that pulls you from your seat into a story. Most would say creating a great plot is an art. But, I would argue that it is actually quite scientific. For you math heads, here’s a formula: Plot = Goal + Conflict. If you are ever looking at your watch and saying to yourself, “Wow, this is a long movie,” chances are there is a weak plot.
If you’re challenged with finding the plot of your brand story, your audiences might not look at their watch, but they will fall out of your nurture stream. Looking for a remedy? Try playing producer and start asking questions:
- Does the main character have a goal?
- Is there enough conflict?
- Are the obstacles heavy enough?
- What is blocking success?
In a story, all sorts of elements can increase the tension to speed things up. For example, this is a key role of the antagonist.
5. Don’t put your story in a content dumping ground
While a website isn’t the silver screen, it can be purpose-built to tell your brand story. If nurture and demand are your goals, don’t create an unfocused blog with unrelated assets piled on top of each other. Structure a digital experience that moves the user through a content journey seamlessly. The right experience should clearly showcase the beginning, middle, and end in the correct order and let prospects move up and down that story based on their specific interest level and buying stage. You can build content to make sure readers can always find the breadcrumbs and get back on the path. Then, use data to capture digital footprints for retargeting and nurturing.
6. Do a script reading
The cast and crew get together for readings at multiple points before film production. The cast, the director, the cinematographer, the editor, the screenwriters, the production designers, and the producers all sit around a table and live out the film. While the film is the granddaddy of “waterfall projects,” this is as close as it gets to being agile. Little changes are made on the fly. And it works. In my experience, people usually swim in their lanes, and the roles are clear. But, everyone’s expert perspective contributes to the overall success of the project. This practice is perfectly transferable to brand storytelling. In fact, it should be a lot easier. The content team can present the beat outlines of the story. The planning/customer insights team can validate the approach. The awareness team can provide input on how to pull and engage with audiences. The demand generation teams can focus on lead capture and nurture. And, of course, the analytics team can make sure we are mapping the right KPIs to the content and the build from the start. The advantage of this approach is you can get buy-in or adjust on the fly, as needed.
Excellent brand storytelling is an essential pillar of any thought-leadership program and should be connected all the way down to demand. While it isn’t an easy task, there are ways to make things feel effortless for the customer. And, for creating that experience, you will be rewarded with an audience experience almost as satisfying as a great film.