Storytelling is being hailed as the new big idea, but it's not that new.  What makes a good story in this viral, user-generated, post advertising world has always made a good story. 

From papyrus to pulpit to plasma screen, the attributes of a ripping yarn have remained the same: credibility, digestibility, and most importantly, emotional resonance.

As brands have historically told stories through their marketing, so have consumers, at work, in the pub and over the garden fence. These too, follow an age-old narrative template; to reflect a particular attitude or lifestyle, to convey status, discernment, authority or expertise. In other words, as brand stories say something about the product or company, consumers’ stories say something about themselves.

But what is new is that consumers have the power and the platforms to talk to a wider and more attentive audience than ever before. With the rise in review sites, the growth in negative brand searches and a macro trend of provenance, consumers are actively seeking out and sharing their own and other people’s brand stories to an unprecedented degree.

What this means is that the fundamentals of brand storytelling must now be applied to consumer engagement strategies and most importantly, these strategies must benefit the consumer as much as the brand to encourage their distribution and dissemination. When the brand and the consumer have a mutual interest and a shared involvement in the storytelling process, both parties are better off.

If we look at the three key drivers of a brand’s storytelling strategy, namely motive, means and opportunity, from the consumer’s perspective, we start to get some interesting parallels.

  • Motive – the reason and rationale for brands to tell stories is usually to create or reinforce a brand positioning, to initiate change such as targeting a new market or address misconceptions. For consumers, likewise, the motivation comes from wishing to position themselves in some way, as an expert or a connoisseur, for example, or the desire for privileged treatment as a brand advocate.
  • Means – brands have a wealth of tools, content and connections at their disposal to tell stories, such as advertising, marketing collateral, packaging and retail presence.  Yet, so do consumers, online via blogs, online communities, sharing and review sites and offline through their day to day interactions.  
  • Opportunity – for brands, the opportunity to tell stories comes from product launches or celebrity endorsements on the one hand, to product recalls and other potential PR disasters on the other. For consumers too, the opportunity is created by good and bad news and they can either be invited to tell their story and share their experiences and views or choose to do so by their own initiative.

So rather than decide which stories they want to tell, brands need to first listen to the stories that consumers are already telling, Monitoring conversations in the online communities, looking at what people are searching for on search engines, tracking their own web traffic, all of these provide fascinating insights into what consumers think of a brand, how they talk about it and the kind of stories they’re probably telling in the real world, too. This kind of data highlights weaknesses in an existing storytelling strategy and opportunities for new ways and places to engage with consumers.

Next brands need to give consumers a reason and reward for telling their own stories. For example, by inviting them into the heart of the brand and according them VIP status, by giving them the opportunity to display their credentials and share their knowledge to others. The reward can also come through more practical incentives, such as discounts and free samples.

Thirdly they need to give them the tools, the times and the places for them to do so, in their own words and their own way. This can be through providing the content to arm consumers with a storytelling arsenal that they can easily digest and distribute, or the badges of belonging that do the talking for them, such as merchandise. 

It can be by holding events that give consumers a chance to be a part of the brand story and have plenty to talk about afterwards.  Or it could be by providing the channels and platforms that invite and incentivise consumers to tell their stories.

In my new paper, ‘Motive, means and opportunity – the beginning, middle and end of brand storytelling’, I cover these ideas in more detail and show how brands including McDonalds, MINI, Land Rover, Marmite, Virgin and Vodafone have developed some very exciting and interesting storytelling strategies, ones that consumers not only enjoy listening to and sharing but are helping to create as brand storytellers in their own right.

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