When I was a boy, every night in bed, a ladybird would tell me a story. They’re some of the clearest and fondest memories of my childhood. Yes, Ladybird* books, for those in the U.S. these are a popular children’s book series in the UK. This series covered illustrious subjects I was fond of such as ‘Shipbuilding’, ‘The Policeman’** and ‘Flags’, but were best known among my generation for their superb telling of classic tales including ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘The Elves and The Shoemaker’. The stories were beautifully told and the illustrations were rich, colourful affairs, reminiscent of renaissance painters – would you believe…probably not. But, here’s the point. What I enjoyed were great stories, told well, and today, storytelling is at the heart of business, marketing and data; here’s why.
About ten years ago, I encountered a company called ‘The Storytellers’. Their founder, who has since left them, introduced me to the concept from a business point of view. Tom told me that we learn not only language but the world around us through stories. Just like me, from an early age, we learn, make sense of and remember information through the framework of stories. I bet anyone hearing ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ for the first time would easily remember the plot. And so, as children conditioned from the outset to process, internalize, and remember stories, why should we act any different as adults? We don’t.
Great brands and great leaders alike tell stories, the best guests on chat shows often tell stories; in fact, if you think back to your best holiday or weekend away, doesn’t it feel a bit like a story? Yes we all have our brand stories too! I bet that every single time you’ve praised or damned a brand, you’ve told a story. You may even have introduced it with a hard hitting opening scene where the script reads something like ‘I’ll never buy from XYZ brand AGAIN! Or more positively ‘This is why I LOVE XYZ brand, they know me!’ The brands we love and loathe create loyalty and affinity or turn us off (potentially for good) through our journeys with them, our stories; so, as marketers, what can we do to create positive stories…all brands want those stories to begin with “This is why I LOVE….”.
Last week, I was part of a roundtable discussion with marketing academics and senior marketers from several of the UK’s biggest brands. The subject was ‘storytelling’. Having recognised the power of stories, the next hour was all about individual stories, of happy and angry customers all with a happy ending. And yet, my concern was, we were discussing storytelling mainly in terms of how we find and capture ‘real life stories’ and how we get these into our marketing messages, in long or short form with consistency. I expressed my concerns.
Just Google or Bing “CMO’s top priorities” – and you’ll quickly encounter the term ‘customer experience’; few would argue that it’s not what top marketers are talking about. The idea is very simple. You deliver a great experience at every stage and you’re more likely to win the customers you want, more likely to keep them and grow ever more profitable relationships with them. Simple. Of course, having a killer product really helps but few of us are blessed with this kind of inherent advantage and if we are, it’s rarely long-lasting, just ask the folks at Nokia or Sony.
While storytelling can be added to an organisation with some success, I believe storytelling needs to be woven into a brand and I believe that data holds the key. A brand may do a brilliant job of telling us a story, perhaps through an ad. However, this is just the beginning of the story. Stories are like brands. We can never fully control a brand and the same is true of a story; once we tell it, it gets interpreted by the listener and retold their way. This is why I believe it is the many little moments of truth that will help the best brands achieve that status. This represents the ‘true story’.
We know the customer of today is ‘everywhere’: online, offline, mobile on social, in-store you name it. Having a data strategy that identifies, collects and curates the right data to let you know who is listening, what stories they’re hearing, what they’re liking and disliking, and the next chapter your brand needs to tell is foundational to success.
The stories are the customer experience and only data can reveal and shape them at scale, where it matters most to the customer. If I were a brand marketer, if I cared about storytelling and delivering a great customer experience, then within my marketing and data strategies, I’d care about customer recognition across all touchpoints and about big data – little data connectivity. Despite the myriad of cool technologies available today, knowing who your customer is and delivering a connected, consistent experience still comes first.
** The books of this era reflect now outdated attitudes, for example, ‘The Policeman’ would now be ‘The Police’.