“Storytellers have as profound a purpose as any who are charged to guide and transform human lives.”—Nancy Mellon, author
Nothing engages human beings like a good narrative. Nothing has formed distinct cultures and bound them together since ancient times like storytelling. Narrative has great power. It’s engaging if it’s relevant to an audience. When a story makes a deep impression, it becomes memorable. A strong narrative moves people because it elicits emotion. When they adopt it, it becomes part of the fabric of who they are.
The kind of narrative I’m referring to isn’t about developing an interesting plot for a novel. I’m talking about brand building. A brand narrative begins by sharing the story behind the brand—the unique vision and aspirations of its founder(s) that employees, stakeholders and consumers can relate to and with which they can identify. It’s a powerful foundation for any brand but it must be shared and expanded upon to create a devoted following.
A story alone doesn’t cut it. No brand that enjoys a cult following has succeeded without have a powerful story that is not only shared but delivered across every channel, every customer touch point and every experience, or it doesn’t ring true. We talk about authenticity and honesty all of the time for good reason. A story is only as meaningful to brand fans as every experience that they have when they engage with the brand.
Coming back to touch points: I’m referring to in-store or on-site interactions with retailers or service providers; websites, social and traditional media as well as mobile; customer service call centers—every channel has to be a conduit for the delivery of the story to surprise, delight and WOW consumers. Narrative-building brands do not invade consumers’ privacy or their spaces; they compel their audience to interact with them because they offer so much richness and meaning.
Here’s the other thing. A meaningful story is only a starting point for a narrative that continues. It doesn’t get stagnant. It grows as new chapters are written; the beauty of the story is that brand fans’ own stories become part of the narrative. Information is shared to enrich the lives of the brand’s adherents, creating core value and that value is prized because it is not found in any other brand. And that, my friends, is how brand fans form a cult. The brand belongs to them and they belong to the brand. The cult becomes part of a microcosm; a special social stratum of believers who can’t conceive of living without their brand because it has become a lifestyle choice.
True cult brands are focused on helping their followers to improve their lives. Their stories are never focused on selling products and services; they’re focused on delivering insights and information that deliver value, as I said. That value might encompass ways in which to add convenience and efficiencies for time-strapped consumers. It might showcase new technologies that meet the needs of the brand’s fans. Or it might share ideas leading to better health and nutritional choices. And it should anticipate what their cult will want even before they do.
As the brand experience deepens, the relationship between the fan and the brand does, too. Brand culture has to really merge with its fan base in order to leverage the full power of the narrative. Understanding the preferences and deep-seated human needs and emotions of its fans, helps brand builders to keep their brands relevant as they advance their narratives.
To prove my point, think of the brands with huge cult followings and recall their stories: Whole Foods, Zara, Lululemon, Apple, REI, Zappos, Van’s, Harley Davidson, Starbuck’s, Trader Joe’s—to name a few. Note how these brands have heritage signifying that they’ve remained true to their stories for some time. Proof that their narratives are constantly being written to remain relevant to their current followers as they consistently attract and engage new followers.
Finally, the brands with the most compelling narratives go one better. They strive to make a difference by being responsible corporate citizens. They practice sustainability and/or they fully integrate into their communities by giving away a share of their profits to worthwhile organizations that help people. They step up when their communities need help. They feed and nurture in tangible and not-so-tangible ways. Brand fans feel good about supporting them because they add so much meaning to their personal lives and do so much to enhance the communities in which they live. No matter how big these brands become, they still feel personal and exemplify a grassroots spirit.
In order to develop a brand strategy focused on leveraging the power of narrative, the following considerations must be met:
– Start with the unique story that brought the brand into being.
– What is the vision, the purpose of the brand? How does that bring meaning to a specific group of consumers?
– How can the story focus on its consumer target with its content: informing, inspiring and elevating their lives?
– How can the story’s new chapters add its fans’ own stories for richness, relevance and to become increasingly personal?
– How can the brand story remain relevant by tapping into its cult’s most ardent desires, needs and anticipate those desires and needs to continue to create “belonging” for them?
– How can the growing brand remain rooted in its narrative and its values, so that it feels personal and “small” no matter how large the company becomes?
– How can the brand do well by doing good? How can it become intertwined in the community?