The goal of a brand is to connect to the market with emotion and relevance. Make it an engaging, enjoyable experience; have a premise, point, obstacle/solution; and be memorable. Applying storytelling principles to a brand strategy simply makes the journey more efficient and effective.
There is no universal formula to tell stories and build a brand. Defining factors can include the size of the brand world, resources, and category. A memorable brand story can be told with direct intentions or derived from brand positioning, product attributes, or even compelling promotional campaigns.
Last month, I discussed the 10 companies I consider to be the best storytelling and branding organizations. In this edition of my column, I’ll expand on what they do, how they do it — and why.
I’ve been addicted to Apple products from the get go. Because I come from an agency background, Apple is the only computer my fingertips have ever touched. When the company first launched in the ’80s, part of the market intrigue was the graphic interface and design friendly features. Their early roots set the stage for this powerful brand legend: authentically cool and distinctly designed by and for the creative class. All their market touch points exude a consistent story. There are computers and then there is Apple — independent-minded, expressive, and innovative. The hip retail stores are complete with Genius bars, informed staff sporting black Apple icon wear, publication characters cut from the same cloth, cool product design, and of course their edgy — many times co-branded with noted hipsters like U2’s Bono — contemporary advertising.
This one-time small Texas airline has grown to become one of the largest and most profitable airlines in America.
President Colleen C. Barrett explains the company’s most effective tactic in telling its brand story: “The Southwest Airlines story has been told so well over the last 34 years that many of our employees knew it before they walked through our doors for a job interview. In most cases it’s the reason they wanted to work at Southwest. But you cannot assume that everyone knows your mission and that even tenured employees always carry it top of mind. We invest a lot of time communicating with our employees through the company newsletter, at all points of their training, and during leadership and development classes as they grow in their careers. It is also represented in our events and celebrations and across the hallways of all work locations (our history and culture is memorialized across our system as an ‘open scrapbook,’ if you will). We never miss an opportunity to share the Southwest spirit with our employees because they are our greatest asset.”
Barrett says that the company’s biggest challenge in the beginning was “to even win the right to fly.” She expands: “The dominant airlines at that time did not want the kind of competition we represented, and they did everything they could from a legal standpoint, to keep us from taking a single flight. Our first four years were spent in administrative hearings or the courtroom! While it was exhausting, that experience laid the foundation of our unique culture today, and that is the ‘Warrior Spirit’ and a big part of our story. If those other airlines had just left us alone, we probably would have gone out of business very quickly, but our competitors’ venom gave our employees a specific mission around which to rally. Our employees love a challenge, and I believe they accomplish their goals better than any company because they are passionate in what they are fighting for — and they feel they are making a positive difference in people’s lives. In terms of our brand, we started out wanting to open up the skies of Texas so that all Texans could afford to fly. Over the years we have evolved that vision into the broader brand of opening up the skies of America and giving everyone the ‘freedom to fly.’ That keeps you going!”
This story is no quack and has certainly stuck on millions of minds. Every time I see or hear a duck — or for that matter Ben Affleck — I think “Aflac,” and Ben’s not even on the payroll! Besides being a memorable and likeable character in the story, the Aflac duck reflects a buying market, people struggling to be heard and frustrated with other products.
The Aflac duck campaign debuted in 2000. Dan Amos, Aflac’s CEO and chairman, recognized that an innovative advertising campaign needed to be created so consumers could recall the company name. Current efforts were not working. Aflac was difficult to pronounce and the acronym AFLAC (American Family Life Assurance Company) could be confused with other companies with similar names. Aflac contacted several advertising agencies to come up with a creative campaign to create brand awareness. The Kaplan Thaler Group developed the duck campaign. While brainstorming, the creative team were having difficulty pronouncing the company name. After saying “Aflac” repeatedly, someone recognized that it sounded similar to a duck quack — hence the Aflac duck!
Early on, Amos committed to go with the highest scoring commercial among consumers. It was chance, but it paid off. In addition to print collateral and brand story training, a duck pond was constructed at corporate headquarters. Four Peking ducks live in the one-third-acre pond.
The Aflac duck was voted one of America’s favorite icons during the inaugural Advertising Walk of Fame ceremony in NYC. The duck beat out veteran icons such as Ronald McDonald and the Energizer Bunny. The duck will receive its official spot on the walk of fame this year. Also, Aflac recently changed its logo to incorporate the duck, who has several cameo appearances scheduled on the big screen in popular films.
The Container Store tells its uncluttered, more space, less stress story in a simple, concise, and consistent form from the store environment, Web presence, product selection, advertising, catalogs, and — most of all — through its employees.
Since 1978, this privately held company has experienced tremendous growth. Many industry analysts attribute its success to its investment in brand ambassador training which incorporates every chapter of the Container Store’s story. The average retailer invests eight hours of training per year per employee. The Container Store invests 241 hours per employee in the first year.
Silversea Cruises Ltd.
Silversea has a fleet of four intimate cruise vessels that offer five-star service, luxurious accommodations, gourmet food and wine, and a distinct Italian heritage. The company is owned by Italians, the ships were built in Italy, and most of the ship’s officers are Italians. “As a result, our story is about authentic ‘Intimate Italian Cruising,'” explains Brad Ball, director of corporate communications.
Advertising has been an effective tool in telling the company’s brand story. They recently launched a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that centers around their new “cruise ambassador,” Isabella Rossellini. “Selection of the right ambassador is key,” Ball says. “Ms. Rossellini portrays the complete essence of our story: elegance, beauty, and luxury adventure.”
Public relations also plays a significant role in the communication of the Silversea brand. Through numerous press articles and media interviews published in a wide variety of lifestyle, business, trade, and travel media, they’ve been able to tell their brand story to a worldwide audience.
“But our most important brand story channel is the actual cruise experience we deliver,” Ball says. “Our loyal guests become stewards of our brand. They experience luxury on all touch points and then tell the story around the world.”
ShoreBank, a Chicago-based financial institution, demonstrates daily that a regulated bank can be an environmental partner and instrumental in revitalizing communities no matter what the income or the ethic composition is.
Shorebank has a variety of branding support tools. A Brand Book outlines everything from how to apply the logo correctly to materials to how to use the brand voice, and ways photographs can be styled to showcase the brand. A communications blueprint challenges employees to put all communications (written, verbal, large audiences, and one-on-one) into the context of the brand.
ShoreBank uses two key tactics to tell its story. First, as a triple bottom line company, they look for stories that highlight the three bottom lines: community, the environment, and profitability. Second, while the company takes diligence and research seriously, they rely on their customers to tell the ShoreBank story. In their communications materials, you’ll see stories, quotes, and photos of real customers who provide an objective view and lend credibility to their communications.
Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants has more than 38 unique hotels, each with its own style, personality, and story — essentially 38 “Brands of One.” The five pillars of the brand, “Care, Comfort, Style, Flavor, and Fun,” communicate the promise while the tagline “Every Hotel Tells a Story” communicates the message that each hotel experience will be different.
Niki Leondakis, COO, points out that their organizational brand story initiatives are not purely marketing, but company- and operation-wide. “Steve Pinetti, senior VP of marketing, and I held individual employee meetings at every hotel,” Leondakis says. “We presented a custom-made brand video and verbally told our brand story in conjunction with showing our video in small employee groups. We made the session fun and interactive by giving out branded prizes to the participants for telling their own stories about how they have brought our brand to life.”
Leondakis continues: “We also run employee break room contests in all of the hotels, offering prizes for the best decorated employee break room illustrating our company’s brand pillars as well as their own individual hotel’s story. This engaged management and employees in creatively bringing the brand to life in their own way.”
To tell its story externally, Kimpton created a storybook that tells the brand story in the form of a short novel. This book was sent with a press release to journalists around the country. They also hosted a press junket at one hotel where the CEO, COO, and the director of pet relations told the story in the form of an old-fashioned storytelling hour. The journalists then visited various stations within the suite and experienced the brand pillars and elements of the story personally.
These guys put together all the resources to make their dream a reality. Jeff and Rich Sloan, StartupNation founders and StartupNation Radio co-hosts, tell their brand story to their employees through a communications architecture “that outlines our mission, audiences, and brand attributes for team members to reference. Additionally we have a brand book that outlines brand attributes, key litany, messaging, and logo requirements.”
The number one avenue of communications is their own nationally syndicated, one-hour radio talk show. Other value tactics have included:
- Media Relations: They’ve secured significant national articles in newspapers and magazines through public relations efforts.
- Short-form Radio: They voice several short-form radio spots that air regularly on AM news talk stations.
- Networking with entrepreneurs and key business leaders.
- They also have a book on starting your dream business, StartupNation: Open for Business, that will be available in May.
The Sloans say, “Growing a new brand doesn’t happen overnight and can be both challenging and rewarding. It’s important not to expect to know your whole ‘story’ right away, and give your brand a chance to evolve into its own. It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money, but it does take a lot of planning, time, and passion for what you’re doing.
Exhale, a total life sanctuary encompassing relaxation, wellness, and fitness to enhance inner and outer well-being, is a story told well by the organization and loyal customers who carry the brand torch every day.
Annbeth Eschbach, Exhale’s founder and CEO, shares how their story started and how it continues to be told: “We believe Exhale’s brand story is built from the inside out. If we take care of our teammates, they take care of our guests, who in turn will take care of our financial performance. It was a conscious decision and key strategy from the very birth of Exhale to develop a compelling brand training system. The senior team developed a mission, vision statement, and mantras (core values), and then we built a unique, proprietary training methodology entitled ‘Serving with Soul’ and ‘Selling with Soul.’ We developed orientation tools and language that serve to distinguish our intent and create our soulful culture.
“Additionally we created offer letters, team manuals, orientation programs, company video, and language specific to Exhale mantras and a certification program that requires each teammate to pass a knowledge test in each key exhale service area after experiencing it before they are able to make full wage.
“The tactics which have been most helpful in communicating our brand externally have been our website and the press.”
Flying Pig Marathon
This flying pig story brands one of the fastest-growing marathons in the U.S. The story celebrates Cincinnati’s history as “Porkopolis” in the 19th century and welcomed more than 12,000 runners last year.
James H. Ferguson, of the CoActive Marketing Group creative team that developed the Flying Pig Marathon brand, explains how the company is a steward of its brand story. “Our copy strategy has three components: benefit, reasons to believe, and character. Every piece of communication reflects this copy strategy to ensure consistency in execution.
“In addition, we believe that a brand plan has three key components: developing the brand promise itself (positioning, look and feel, etc.), promoting the brand promise (choosing the right communications mediums to ensure an effective and efficient spend), and then delivering on the brand experience 24/7 (this is the most important at the end of the day… one must deliver on the brand promise from the 1-800 number, simplicity of the application form, advertising, and all activities on and around race day. If we are all about ‘fun,’ then every experience you have with the brand must be fun!
“We think of this as a fully integrated marketing plan that utilizes the most effective communications vehicles possible to ensure an efficient spend. Print advertising, trade shows, direct mail to past runners, and the Web are the main vehicles. Frankly the most effective advertising is ‘word-of-mouth’ from past runners who become advocates of the brand! We call them our brand ambassadors.
“Delivering on what we promised on race day itself and all the activities surrounding the race is what it all comes down to. Period. You can do an excellent job of communicating the essence of your brand through a variety of media, but if you don’t deliver on that promise, you are in trouble because people will feel let down and you lose that confidence and emotional connection with the consumer.
“Making sure all employees, volunteers, and sponsors understand what your brand is all about is critical in gaining their hearts and souls behind the brand so they all execute well in a consistent manner. The goal is to excite, educate, and motivate them about what the brand means so they deliver on that consumer promise.”
Ferguson says the toughest challenge in protecting the brand story is “maintaining the essence (equity) of your brand from year to year while allowing it to evolve from an overall messaging and ‘look and feel’ standpoint! The key elements of a marathon are the runners’ medals, poster and T-shirts… all of these are freshly designed each year together with the ad campaign to create a new and exciting dimension to the brand. While we may have new creative, it is all consistent with the basic equity/character of the brand. It is important to evolve the brand from year to year to create ongoing interest and intrigue, but you must be true to the essence of the brand — thus the copy strategy. It really ends up being an interpretation of the copy strategy vs. rewriting it every year. One must keep a brand fresh!”
Branding veteran J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich Partners, offers some final thoughts: “The notion of brand storytelling is a powerful idea that is underutilized in most brand marketing, mainly because of the idea of positioning. Of course, the two ideas are not incompatible, but each emphasizes a different approach. Storytelling focuses on the emotional hook of a narrative — drama, conflict, resolution, a moral. Positioning emphasizes the benefits of the way(s) in which a product solves problems — needs, gaps, attributes, payoff.”
Storytelling is one way to communicate a position; indeed, the best brand storytelling not only makes an emotional connection, it has something to say about benefits.