Brand storytelling is central to marketing strategies; from shaping the overall brand narrative to crafting individual pieces of branded content. But how does it fit into the broader media strategy?
Campaign and Marketing hosted an executive breakfast debate to examine the changing landscape of brand storytelling, content and narrative, and how to craft engaging stories around brands. Senior marketing professionals gathered in the prestigious Haymarket Hotel for a wide-ranging debate that covered how to define success in brand storytelling, how brand ambassadors can embrace the brand’s culture and how big data can influence content.
The discussion opened on the challenges of measuring success in brand storytelling – what KPI should a brand use to track its brand narrative and content?
"We talk about cultural content and right-time content," Matt Davies, the UK managing director of MEC Wavemaker, said. "Our school of thought is that it is a continuous consumer journey – whatever place they’re in on that journey, our content will be useful at that point. We put KPIs against different types of content."
Patrick Venning, Pernod Ricard’s UK marketing director, noted that despite the wealth of data available to marketers, nothing beats intuition: "Go back to old-school marketing mixed metrics. I’ve probably only got one or two brands where I can justify spending that amount of money. Would I rather spend that money on consumer-facing content or measurement?"
"The danger is trying to create something and thinking it’ll do everything," James Larman, the head of strategy at Drum, said. "It depends on what point of the consumer journey you’re trying to talk to them: content that’s designed to get a reaction; content that’s trying to get real interaction further down the funnel."
Social media as a conduit
Social media has opened up opportunities to build two-way conversations between brands and customers – but making these interactions ring true to the spirit of the brand narrative is a challenge. "The problem is we’re not talking about social – we’re just talking about social media," Sophie Robinson, the creative director at Metro, said. "It’s just social – social media comes into it naturally if you’re behaving in a social way."
Matthew Kershaw, the managing director, content, at iris, noted the importance of targeting niche audiences rather than taking a "spray and pray" approach. "If you talk to the niche audience in the right way and become more passionate, they become more valuable," he said, adding that "one man’s influencer is another man’s nobody". Collaborating with Samsung on its Serif TV, iris aimed to work with the design community, targeting key influencers within it. "There’s always big spillover, if they’re passionate about it and talk about it in the right way. We’re interested in aggregating niches," Kershaw said.
"If you talk to the niche audience in the right way and become more passionate, they become more valuable"
"Create good content and it’ll naturally be distributed," Ricky Ray Butler, the senior vice-president of digital at BEN, said. "When we think about TV programmes, it’s always the studios doing it. Brands are at the point where they’re creating programmes that other people want to watch and share."
Influential brand ambassadors
The conversation moved on to the role of brand ambassadors in creating branded content. With brand ambassadors across platforms such as YouTube becoming an increasingly important channel to reach consumers, marketers need to use the influence of these individuals without sacrificing their credibility among their audience.
The solution, Butler said, is to have the influencers develop the content, rather than taking a heavy-handed, brand-led approach. "They’re smart, they’re not just teenagers any more – they’re multimillionaires," he said. "It’s like doing something with Jimmy Fallon – you’re integrating your brand into their brand. You can’t give them a script or their audiences will get pissed."
"It’s having a purpose and an idea and getting people who want to talk about that naturally," Larman said. "
They understand it’s a commercial arrangement but they want to get involved anyway." He cites the example of Channel Us, a YouTube channel that Drum developed for McDonald’s: "The aim was to help young people realise their creative ambitions; there’s a bit of a social purpose there – the vloggers recognise that they want to help people."
Big data, big opportunity
Data, the participants agreed, is playing an increasingly vital role in brand storytelling. With big data proliferating, the challenge is to harness its power to create compelling, targeted content. "We call it where science meets art," Jack Gallon, the head of art at MBA, said. "The effect data has on storytelling is personali- sation; you can twist the story to fit." He referred to a recent campaign for O2 that used data to create personalised digital adviser "holograms" aimed at leads: "We found the top 50 potential leads, found out their names, their companies; we were able to personalise every single hologram. Their own personal brand story. The ROI was massive."
"It’s fascinating how our two worlds have collided," Kershaw said."You’re getting information about trends, optimising your content; which are the successes, which didn’t quite resonate. There’s no data that’s ever been useful to me that hasn’t started with a human hypothesis."
Robinson pointed out that brands are not doing enough with the data that they already have – for example, brands’ con- tent doesn’t take account of the mindset of Metro readers, even though they know the context in which people are usually reading the paper. She said: "We have a moment in time, a mood and emotional mindset – we know that people are on their way to work. But people think ‘Just shove it in press’ – they miss the emotional connection with the product."
The potential of data to enable dynamic optimisation of content excited the roundtable – though that in itself creates challenges, as Larman pointed out: "How do you create dynamic content at scale? It’s a lot easier to create banners that change, not a whole episode."
Meaning behind the message
There was collective agreement that brand storytelling is increasingly central to a successful marketing plan, but that there are still challenges to overcome.
"You have to be able to tell a non-linear story," Gallon noted. "People will come in at the middle, halfway through the begin- ning, at the end. You have to tell many stories within your one story."
Davies agreed: "It’s fundamental to create one consistent brand experience. Content has to have a purpose, based on understanding the audience and the platform."
Accordingly, Larman said, brands have to provoke audiences and have a stronger point of view: "Attention is the hardest thing to try to gain from people. The only way to cut through is to have a much sharper opinion on cultural issues. It’s not about being provocative for its own sake – it’s about having a stance."
"The only way to cut through is to have a much sharper opinion on cultural issues. It’s not about being provocative for its own sake – it’s about having a stance."
It is, Butler said, a beautiful time for ads: "Storytelling can be scaled, it can target communities. You can see how people react, what they want and don’t want, and adjust it to be better received."
As the landscape of brand storytelling changes, the table agreed, brands will find it increasingly important to develop a brand story that takes a stance, is authentic and yet can be adapted dynamically to reach new audiences across touchpoints – using big data, social media and brand ambassadors to tailor its message to different niches.
In the debate
- Matthew Kershaw managing director, content, iris
- James Larman head of strategy, drum
- Ricky Ray Butler senior vice-president of digital, BEN
- Rachel Barnes editor, Marketing; chair
- Jack Gallon head of art, MBA
- Patrick Venning managing director, Pernod Ricard UK
- Matt Davies UK managing director, MEC Wavemaker
- Sophie Robinson creative director, Metro