Consistency or Variety?
In the world of branding, there is an adage: keep it consistent. Use the same words, phrases, and images in order to imprint them deeply into the consciousness of your customers and stand out in the market. Americans may be at least equally familiar with “Just do it,” if not more, than with “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Personal stories, on the other hand, are wild and wooly creatures, hard to control, and ripe with subjective perceptions and nuance. How can they serve a brand’s preeminence in general, and what specifically about personal stories makes them useful as brand storytelling?
When we consider personal storytelling within the broad goals of branding, we’re talking, first, about something one level down from the commons where brands compete. After name recognition, brands must set about building trust. Does messaging build trust? Meanwhile, we know that personal storytelling is by nature a vehicle for genuineness. While we may question the motivation behind branding slogans, if not view with them contempt at times, at a minimum we will be stretching to sense what’s behind those branded words and phrases. Not so with personal storytelling. Personal stories are easily within range of our innate truth-detecting radar, and we can feel quite at ease with our ability to assess a story’s genuineness. On that ground, when genuine stories are excavated, crafted, and presented, they are guaranteed a greater receptivity, naturally, than stratified marketing language. Personal stories have a role to play in a brand’s objective goal of building trust, or at very least, increasing its relatability for customers.
Personal Storytelling is About Possibilities
Knowing that personal stories function on a different ground than branding at the broad, public level, how can they be used strategically without proscribing their potential? Let’s acknowledge that people in general seek variety and change. Personal stories deliver that variety. In contrast, when individuals repeat branded concepts, whether sales reps, spokespeople, employees or “real people” in commericals, they become hackneyed. Often unbelievable, mere stand-in’s for actual genuineness. Instead, personal storytelling expresses a personal relationship with the brand, service, or product. Multiple dimensions and creative possibilities abound. The key is to trust that these stories will represent the brand and that an audience can make the connection without being spoon-fed, if not force fed, ideas that have been forged by marketing data science. At the same time, there’s no doubt that it takes training to ensure that stories emerge that are relevant to the message, well-crafted, and told with confidence.
Working backward in that list, the more personal a story, the more confidence the teller will have. In essence, the story of the brand becomes her’s and everything in her physiological and psychological system comes on board to support the telling. A listener, whether a customer or potential client, will sense her embodiment of that story. Alternatively, when she’s not telling a personal story, listeners may sense that she is simply parroting ideas that haven’t truly sunken in.
To craft a story well takes training and practice. She’ll have to identify its parts, form an arc, and utilize a trusted language-method for the telling. She can’t expect a story to, first, emerge from the wealth of her experience without some guided excavation; and she can’t expect to undertake a method of telling and immediately get it right. This is true for any discipline, and storytelling is best when it relies on a disciplined method. On that foundation, creativity takes place.
Finally, the relationship of a personal story to the brand or company’s message is not always immediately obvious. In fact, it’s better if it’s not. Let it loose and let it roll. If a brand has set a policy for admitting personal stories into its culture it opens new horizons for communication. This will enrich the meaning and experience of the brand. The priority should be a rich and genuine personal stories inspired by a relationship to the brand or company’s product, service, or mission. And a trust in the listener to be intelligent enough to make the connection. The essential point of personal storytelling is to build emotional resonance. That is priority number one, and when that bridge is built, a message can travel over it with much greater efficacy.
Identify—and trust—your storytellers
By virtue of their working relationship with a company, all employees are storytellers of that company’s story. They talk about work at lunch and at home; they may think about the company’s mission spontaneously. In all cases, they are a reservoir of known stories that enshrine a company’s values, origin, and mission. And they hold as yet untold stories that offer surprises alongside valuable information that can be shared up and down the chain of command. They have the capacity to shed light on a company’s mission, products, and values in a highly relatable, memorable, and convincing way.
When a company has developed a storytelling culture, it then needs a plan for making use of those resources: first, a time and place to gather stories, whether in specific meetings, through an online portal, or in more intimate settings between communication officers and employees. Second, an intention to apply them in internal communication, which strengthens ownership and mission, or in sales or at a marketing layer below the broad conventions of taglines, slogans and advertising campaigns.
A culture of storytelling breathes life into every brand’s message. Personal stories contain an undiscovered dimensions of a brand’s positive impact on a consumer’s life. The age-old exchange of listening and storytelling offers the ideal platform for genuine communication that can increase trust. Far from Madison Avenue, on an assembly line or front counter, the next great story of what makes a brand different is just waiting to be told.
Sasha is the Chief Operating Officer of Narativ.