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How Storytelling Helps Brands Put Consumers First

Brands such as Google, Apple and Nike are centering brand experiences around the consumer first versus channel first. The traditional brand approach has been about giving the brand different ways to broadcast campaign messages. However, the digital transformation is changing all that. It’s about consistently telling a unique story and engaging with an audience who shares their views as part of the conversation.

The digital age has demolished the contrived, one-direction stream of information that existed during the previous era when there were only a few channels of communication, and social media has risen as an instant and global platform that allows billions to share ideas, deal with natural disasters, and even create the momentum for political revolution.

Companies used to broadcast through tightly controlled, carefully constructed messages. In the digital age, both corporations and consumers—including the 1.5 billion active users on Facebook—are engaged in spontaneous, unscripted conversations. Companies are beginning to understand that any individual consumer has the power to create a profit-threatening disaster with a comment that’s just 140 characters long. At the same time, the proliferation of connected devices and the activities they generate are creating substantial amounts of data that offer direct and indirect insights regarding consumers’ lives.

Even the most senior company executives have adjusted their focus toward consumers, who are now too powerful to be disregarded―a noteworthy break with tradition. Executives have historically believed that finding an understanding of the consumer was solely the function of market research, and the insights found would remain within the marketing department and distributed to other departments on an as-need basis. For B-to-B companies, consumer knowledge typically excluded any recognition of the end user. Today, the consumer has become the focal point of every decision, from leadership development to growth strategy.

Social Media’s Impact on the Consumer Experience

Designing a consumer experience that is pleasurable has been an established way for consumer-focused companies to try and differentiate themselves in highly competitive environments. What has changed is that the Internet has given consumers the power to share their experiences instantly and with a wide-ranging audience. Previously, the result of an extremely satisfied customer was brand loyalty from that individual and perhaps recommendations from that customer to friends and/or family. Now, through the use of social media, both customer praise and critique is magnified, turning what used to be simply word of mouth into consumer reviews that can reach a worldwide audience in minutes.

Consumer experience and engagement have increasingly become an important marketing lever for every company. In the industries where growth has slowed, this is very much the case since there is more benefit in retaining the most valuable customers. Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative, for example, builds on the brand’s mission of sustainability while providing value to their target audience by offering a service they care about, which, in turn, drives long-term loyalty.

Designing programs that offer valuable experiences like this now play a crucial role in marketing, mainly due to the increasing rate at which consumers discuss these experiences on high-traffic social media platforms. Therefore, it’s no surprise to see the rise of companies such as Starbucks and Amazon, whose marketing incentives are primarily based on the virtue of their consumer experience and engagement rather than the volume of their promotions. Within this setting of increased transparency, the future of consumer experience and engagement will be formed by both deliberate and unforeseen interactions between brands and their users. A sudden increase in pricing, a thoughtless act by a consumer-facing employee, or a disparaging blog post can undercut the consumer experience that has been carefully established over many years. This environment is far different from the one in which marketers could tightly control every marketing message that flowed through a few vital channels.Marketing was once an isolated function whose objective was to use consumer insights to determine the product design, position its value, and then “drive” the product to market. The digital age has demanded a dynamic change in how the marketing department perceives itself, how it interacts within organizations, and how it manages information in today’s rapidly changing, data-abundant environment.

The Shift from Promotion to Engagement

In order to find success in the digital age, marketing teams must stop thinking of their principal objective as promotion—telling people what to buy and why—and start emphasizing engagement by offering consumers relevant reasons to build a relationship with the brand.

Creating a relationship with the consumer through engagement can be achieved through a harmonious series of stimulating interactions. This approach goes farther than just managing the consumer experience at particular touchpoints and includes every way a company can excite consumers into investing their time and emotions in a continued relationship with a brand. Even employee behavior has become a part of today’s marketing mix.

The marketing department can no longer be viewed as a silo since important touchpoints and streams of data that are crucial to the mission of marketing occur across multiple functions and departments. The leading role of marketing has shifted to coordinating the consumer experience and engagement through all touchpoints and for the brand as a whole. Consequently, the marketing function must be the driving force for consumer engagement.

The Way Forward: Creating Personal Stories

For established companies, recognizing the shift in power that has occurred in the last two decades and actively adopting a more consumer-centered approach will not be a quick or easy transition, but it is paramount. Companies that refuse to adapt will find their survival in jeopardy. Like all change, this new way forward will create new opportunities as well as new “winners.” Brands can get a jump start by incorporating the consumer’s perspective into every basic process and redesigning the culture and instincts within their organization. Establishing a culture of storytelling will be the path that many successful brands will take, but the type of story being told must resonate with the consumer.

One of the major mistakes brands make when adopting a storytelling approach is to put themselves in the role of hero. In today’s environment, the consumer must be the hero while the brand must establish themselves as their mentor. The power shift toward the consumer is making the brand-as-hero attitude less effective. Consumers are more sophisticated, have more resources and, therefore, have higher expectations. Trying to control them in any way will be perceived as arrogant, but when the goal becomes participation instead of control the hero will be more likely to open up their world and their story. The transition in storytelling starts with focusing on exercises that switch the brand position from being push-driven and brand-centered (brand as hero) to being based on experience and engaging to the consumer (brand as mentor).

Consumers make friends with mentors who help them achieve their goals, satisfy their desires or meet their needs. Turning the consumer into the hero of the brand’s narrative landscape will empower them. By serving the needs of consumers, brands naturally become a part of their story, and who is in a better position to tell the brand story than a hero?

In becoming mentors, brands create a bridge between people and their needs. These bridges, whenever possible, must be tangible. Storytelling in the past has served as a bridge, but often, even great stories are just not enough. Keep in mind that the goal is engagement, and brands must form experiences that go beyond the story where heroes are engrossed and involved. It is the difference between a story being told and a story being lived.

Mitch Duckler is the managing partner of FullSurge, a strategic consulting firm based in Evanston, Ill.