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Giving a Voice to Your Brand

SEOmoz August 6, 2013 Comments Off

Posted by gfiorelli1

Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. More human than human is our motto.
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Blade Runner

Those who had not heard of storytelling cast the first stone.

And those who are not thinking of it, or maybe have already begun to speak in-house or with their customers that it is necessary to give a voice to their brands, cast the second.

The question is, do we really know what “brand storytelling” means?

Do we really know why it is important for increasing brand recognition, optimizing customer retention, and (hopefully) attain that status of thought leaders in our niche that we all aspire to achieve?

Do we really understand why it is also important from an SEO point of view?

Finally, do we really know the rhetoric of storytelling — the laws behind a good narrative?

The truth is that everyone can tell a story, but only a few know how to tell it well and naturally. Fortunately, it is an art that can be learned.

Storytelling

Stories and irrational impulses are what change behavior. Not facts or bullet points.
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Seth Godin

One of the things that surprises me most when it comes to us, the internet marketers, is that we still often tend to think analogically:

Having A, doing B, performing C, I will obtain D.

I have a product, I write some “great content,” I promote it, and people will come like bees attracted to a field of flowers.

Unfortunately, things are not so anymore. To tell the truth, they were never so.

Our mistake, paraphrasing Seth Godin, is that we tend to create nothing but bullet points and present nothing but facts. We forget that our audience reacts to everything specifically because of its emotions, so we don’t really work on those emotions, which are rationalized in just a moment.

The secret of storytelling is not in its final expressions (so many in a digital era) but in the act itself of telling a story.

Telling stories is what helps human beings rationalize and understand emotions, and thus accept or refuse a statement.

For this reason, humankind has told stories since it was living in the caves of Altamira or Lascaux. Culture was transmitted though stories, legends, and myths; religions and states have been founded on stories.

The 300 Spartans fought against the immense Persian army at Thermopylae not just because Leonidas guided them or because they were the bravest warriors of ancient Greece, but especially because a mythology composed by hundreds of stories assured them they were the descendants of Heracles.

Citing the Big Fish character of Wil Bloom, “a man tells so many stories that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.”

For this reason we love family stories, and for this reason we relate to brands with stories we lived while using and enjoying them.

Think for a moment about your youth, and you will notice how you can write down a never-ending list of brands you remember because of the emotions they helped you feel. Personally, if I think to when I was a teenager in the ’80s, I cannot help but remember brands like Commodore, Atari, Saba (the first color television my family bought) and many others.

Neuroscience explains quite well how evolution has wired us for storytelling, as Leo Widrich of Buffer explained so well on LifeHacker.

But the most interesting conclusion neuroscience offers to us is that the brain of the storyteller and the brain of their listeners start acting in synchronization when a story is told, as the same areas of their brain start being used.

There are other interesting theories, including Jung’s conclusions about archetypes and myths, and if you want to dig into how to use literary modes for internet marketing you can read this post I wrote a few months ago.

Brand storytelling

Storytelling, then, is possibly the best way to convince a person of something, whether it be voting for a candidate for president, choosing one religion over another, adhering to certain moral conduct, or buying one product rather than another.

I can already hear the distant murmur of a thousand voices saying, “But the product that I have to sell is a bolt!”

Once again, that’s the shortsighted mistake of seeing only the end result and forgetting everything that led to its creation. We stop ourselves at the what and forget the why and the how.

What do you think of when I mention Red Bull? I am sure that you think about adventure, extreme sport, and a crazy guy who skydived from the stratosphere. And what if I mention Lucozade? Maybe if you are into energy drinks you know of it, but I am quite sure that many of you, as was my case, have just now heard its name for the first time.

The products are practically the same: bottles and cans of energy drinks. Red Bull, though, has been able to create stories around its brand while Lucozade has not. And people love stories that respond to their needs, desires, and dreams.

As reported by Ty Montague on Medium, Dietrich Mateschitz, the founder of Red Bull, explained the reasoning behind the tagline Red Bull gives you wings: “[it] means that it provides skills, abilities, power, etc., to achieve whatever you want to. It is an invitation as well as a request to be active, performance-oriented, alert and to take challenges. When you work or study, do your very best. When you do sports, go for your limits. When you have fun or just relax, be aware of it and appreciate it.”

Red Bull, hence, proposes itself as a lifestyle and not just an energy drink. For that reason, its Brand is far more memorable than Lucozade.

Where to start

There is a world of stories hidden in the About Us and Mission pages (it’s a shame that those are usually hidden in the footer menu).

The biggest mistake a marketer can make is not understanding that brands are the final expression of a company, and that a company is just something real people created in order to achieve something (which usually isn’t “making money”).

Let’s check out a few examples:

  • Moz was founded because Rand Fishkin and Gillian Muessig had the vision of helping people doing better marketing.
  • People, who were convinced there are ideas worth spreading, have created TED Talks.
  • Patagonia has as its mission to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
  • Betabrand’s mission is to “design, manufacture, and sell a stylish array of anti-nudity equipment known as “clothing.”
  • REI’s mission is to “inspire, educate, and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.”
  • ZenDesk’s is to “help you deliver exceptional customer service.”
  • Fitbit’s mission is “to empower and inspire you to live a healthier, more active life.”
  • Nike wants “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” And, one of its mottos is, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”

Missions are an expression of the values that guide a company and are the ethical basis of its stories (the how). The protagonists of those stories are not only the company’s products, but also (and especially) the people who use, live with, and make those products their own.

The Blues Brothers had a mission. What about you?

The schema of brand storytelling

Even the simplest story has very sophisticated mechanisms working behind the scenes. The listeners don’t always see them, but they know them and expect them to be present. If they aren’t present, they won’t laugh when they are meant to laugh or cry when they are meant to cry.

In his essay Ars Poetica, the Greek philosopher Aristotle described the six elements of every story:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Thought
  4. Diction
  5. Song
  6. Spectacle

In more modern terms, we can translate “thought” as “theme,” and “song” as “rhythm.”

Plot

It is thanks to Aristotle that we usually say a plot must have a beginning, middle, and an end, and that events of the plot must causally relate to one another as being either necessary or probable. Most importantly, a plot must arouse emotion in the psyche of the audience.

In this simple scheme, the middle is especially important, because after the status quo is introduced in the beginning, during this phase we have:

  • The accident, which is what imperils or upsets the status quo;
  • The anticlimax, which is the lowest point of the story, when everything seems as if it won’t be solved;
  • The climax, when someone or something happens that turns things around, helping the hero find a solution

After those events, the end usually represents the establishment of a new, better status quo.

From a brand storytelling point of view, the plot is the how, as in how the values of the brand (its why) responds to the needs of its audience.

For instance, using Moz as an example, the mission of helping people do better marketing is fulfilled by the creation of tools built under the spirit of the mission tenets (the TAGFEE principles), which respond to the needs of every kind of internet marketer. The community, whose knowledge encompasses every discipline of inbound marketing, responds by using those tools. This is the main plot line of Moz.

Characters and theme

Intrinsically related to the plot are the characters and the theme.

The main characters are the heroes of the stories, whose actions determine the plot of the story. The secondary ones are those who provide the main characters with information, materials, goods, services, or whatever is needed to advance the plot.

Using Moz as an example again, the main character is the user — maybe someone who has just started her adventure in internet marketing — while the secondary characters are the products and (this being the characteristic of every business with a strong, active community) the Mozzers.

Users and brands, therefore, are the characters of every brand story, with the users being the main characters.

With the users as the main characters, it is then easy to understand how important is to know them as well as possible before, during, and after the release of a product. Hence the strategic importance of personas, audience targeting, the continuous feedback from the users, and the post-sale follow-ups and growth hacking.

The theme is the universe where the plot takes place, and the laws governing that universe in brand storytelling are the tenets (for instance, the TAGFEE tenets), which make the rules with which the mission will be achieved explicit.

This universe is usually an ideal world the users would love to live in, because it offers the answers to their needs, and it is a universe that only the brand can offer them.

The brand universe can be totally mythical — a representation of reality as we want it.

Diction, rhythm, and spectacle

Once the plot, the characters, and the theme are set up, we can start thinking about the diction, rhythm, and spectacle.

Diction is the expression of meaning in words, and it is a consequence of the tone and style.

In brand storytelling, and here SEOs may play a great role, diction is not just how the brand talks to the users, but also the creation of brand language where the language spoken by users is enriched by those that Dan Shure brilliantly defined as Propwords.

MozCon, MozBot, Roger, Whiteboard Friday, Mozinar, Mozzers, and many others are the propwords of Moz, which are immediately understood and appropriated by the users.

Diction is what helps create a indissoluble relationship between keywords and the brand, creating the so-called branded keywords.

Rhythm is usability. When we narrate a story we always use an underlying rhythm, which helps the story flow so the listeners won’t notice the rhetorical mechanisms behind the story itself.

Finally, spectacle is the organization of appearances that are simultaneously enticing, deceptive, and superficial.

The web expression of spectacle is graphic design.

Examples of brand storytelling

Dumb Ways to Die

The Metro Trains public company of Melbourne (Australia) had one thing clear: people don’t pay attention to signs and recorded messages.

So, in order to ensure its message about how we all must pay attention when in the metro station was heard, and thereby diminish the cases of accidents due to distraction, Metro Trains decided to produce a song — Dumb Ways to Die — and launch it on YouTube.

What happened after is the story of maybe the best case of transmedia brand storytelling ever created until now.

Spread the TEDx, Buenos Aires

We all know about TED Talks, and maybe many of you have attended one of the community-generated events called TEDx.

Well, TED Talks had a problem in Buenos Aires: Not many people there knew what the heck a TEDx was, simply because no one had the ability to explain it to them.

So, consistent with its mission that there are ideas worth spreading, TEDx decided to use what could have been its best brand ambassadors, the taxi drivers:

NIKE — Find Your Greatness

NIKE has done brand storytelling since before the existence of the internet, but its “Find Your Greatness” campaign was the first held entirely without buying classic television ad spaces. Instead, it used all the possible digital channels could to make its story, based on its “if you have a body, you are an athlete” principle, touch its audience.

Oreo Daily Twist

Oreo is the classic brand that we tend to associate with little memorable moments of our daily lives. It reminds us of when we were kids and having breakfast, and the simple emotions attached to those memories is able — because of the way our brain works — to make us remember other unrelated events.

Based on this simple idea, Oreo created the Daily Twist campaign.

Conclusions

When doing brand storytelling, if we follow the principle of narrative described above, we will be able to design an ongoing conversation with our users, who — and this is the great difference between analogical brand storytelling and digital one — will start creating new stories related to the brand.

Here is where inbound marketing, in its core meaning of creating brand stories and presenting them to the right audience in the right place and at the right time, gains a bigger meaning.

And here is where branding and SEO collide, because all the stories we tell will compose our story, and all the stories we tell will help us create our unavoidable existence as an online entity (and you should already know what that means in the eyes of Google, both right now and in the future).

As Tracey Halvorsen put very well: “Today, more than ever before in the history of modern civilization, individuals [and brands — my annotation] are empowered with the tools to be storytellers and the technology to see their stories spread far and wide in the blink of an eye.

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