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Brand Stories Are Co-Created, Not Just Told

06/05/2016 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Digital Branding Series #2: Leveraging consumer engagement to create and recreate brand stories; read #1 here.

Storytelling is everywhere today. Not just fiction, even news is related through stories for greater impact--to engage with readers, to help explain the nuances of breaking news or detail their analysis in a way that makes it come alive.

Our wrinkly rational neocortex loves facts and figures, but it is that irrational limbic brain on the sides of the thalamus that retains long-term memories and influences emotion and drives sub-conscious behaviour.

Was the telling of the 26/11 crisis in the book The Siege or the blow by blow news of corporate espionage in the Petroleum Ministry plain fact or hyper-dramatized reality?

That the world is Maya takes on a new meaning, as truth gets fictionalized for greater dramatic impact.

A real estate brand may speak about transparency, but if consumers find their dealings opaque, their response can influence the brand story itself.

Marketers and brand managers have leveraged another aspect of storytelling for years. They use stories to carve the identity for a brand. Stories that evoke values and vision, stories that are told through television advertising and distilled into print ads, stories that embed themselves in the minds of consumers. Like authors, brand managers and marketers had complete autonomy on the story they wanted to craft and thus the brand they wanted to create. From expert imagination sprung this living identity.

For example, a brand defined its attributes or values. Coca Cola stood for happiness, fun, refreshment, optimism and more. Kingfisher also likely stood for happiness, fun, refreshment, optimism and more.

Stories could perpetuate brand perception. In this one-way interaction and story creation, the only consumer reaction possible was to either believe in the story, align with brand values and buy the product, or not believe in the story, not align with brand values and not buy the product. As an exception, boycotts or class action lawsuits happened. They changed the story about the brand, but it took time and inordinate effort, which most consumers would not expend.

Digital has turned this scenario on its head.

Crowd-sourced stories have been all the rage in literary and media circles-- more as a way to engage with readers on social media or to create a fun activity for an interest circle, such as group of writers. The recent Times of India Write India initiative invited readers to co-create stories with their favourite authors.

Co-creating a brand story is also the way forward for marketers.

The endangered oral tradition has found new formats-- in print, through 140 characters and evocative images, and through video posts.

Consumers today don't just receive the story being written and disseminated by the custodians of a brand. Despite the clutter of established and emerging brands in every sub-segment, consumers are able to identify what a brand stands for. Not what a marketer communicates, but the sum total of what the consumers understand and experience, how they endorse or communicate about a brand.

Consequently, consumers are happy to script their own stories of what a brand means, and participate actively on social media to contribute to what is said about their preferred or rejected brands. This story may or may not match with the story being told by its custodians. The chatter pervades, and takes shape like an amorphous cloud of meaning, influencing the perception of the brand itself.

A real estate brand may speak about transparency, but if consumers find their dealings opaque, their response can influence the brand story itself.

We see this for brands and celebrities alike, where the perception of the company or an endorser rises or plummets based on how people react to them on social media, either underscoring a positive story or recreating a negative one.

In a way, this is transporting us to an earlier era, when oral transmission of tales changed the details and understanding of the story itself over multiple retellings. Fact merged with fiction to create myths and legends. Lore survived centuries, but morphed slowly into a newer understanding. The Ramayana has multiple versions, many of which were adapted as the wandering minstrels travelled to new lands and new listeners shaped the story with their local traditions and belief systems. Over years, many of these local versions got written down. Thus the Valmiki Ramayana had some differences from the Kambana Ramayana.

It is important for brands to leverage the tsunami of opinions...to craft the overall brand story.

The endangered oral tradition has found new formats-- in print, through 140 characters and evocative images, and through video posts. Big data analytics engines, Twitter ratings, and social media interactions between brand custodians and consumers and within consumer groups are changing the narrative.

Stories work best when they are contiguous to what the brand stands for. Havells wins media awards for its sensitive portrayal of women in advertisements, which is another form of storytelling. But if gender sensitivity is not core to the company and its products, consumers will not participate to co-create a larger story. It is a neutral scenario. In contrast, Good Earth uses a mix of stories, images, evocative lifestyles, aspiration and more to craft stories about the brand--which consumers are willing to engage with, share and spread, and shape further. At the other end, negative experiences by consumers can shift the perception of a property on Airbnb, negating what the property owner wants to project.

It is important for brands to leverage the tsunami of opinions to not just create experiences for the consumer and invite engagement, but also to craft the overall brand story. If not curated carefully, the multiple threads created by consumers will create an unintended narrative for a brand.

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Photographs by Nemai Ghosh

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