Your brand is not a story: here's what it really is

It's easy to to slip into the "brand as story" trap. After all, your brand does represent an idea that you want people to buy into. So it's a short leap of logic to conclude that storytelling is the primary means for developing your brand. The conventional wisdom suggests that you "tell you brand story" so that people "buy in". This type of thinking is typically accompanied by a large budget for advertising, media, sponsorships etc.

There are, however, several problems with over-relying on this approach.

  1. The law of media clutter: Let's face it, media clutter is rapidly overtaking space trash and bears as one of the greatest threats facing humanity today. Media clutter means that people are now more likely to experience your brand without the context of the communications you place around that brand. This puts more emphasis on the experience a customer has when "using" your brand. That experience must speak for itself. Some try to escape this "trap" by spending a massive amount of money on media, to guarantee that your story will "break through" to customers. This is what many F500 brands now do: it's one way to solve the problem of media clutter in the short term; in the long-term it destroys a brand's economics and leaves you vulnerable to creeping decline as the money spent on a media arms race sucks the life out of other, more fruitful ways that capital could be deployed for long-term growth.

  2. Cognitive Dissonance: when customers experience your product or service, if that experience does not match the story you are telling, cognitive dissonance will set in. People will stop beleiving you. Brands over-promise at their peril. However, due to the above-mentioned media clutter arms race, your marketing team will face all kinds of pressures to do the exact opposite of avoiding the "over-promise trap"; in the rush for eyeballs they will widen the gap, creating more, not less, cognitive dissonance by making promises that the brand can't keep.

  3. Meta-Cognitive Dissonance: marketing departments everywhere are exaggerating claims to escape the clutter, so people's overall trust in marketing is down too. This is akin to the situation when you get an antibiotic resistant superbug, even though you, personally, have never used an antibiotic in your life.

  4. Viral Dissonance: Despite being #4 on our list, this is worth paying attention to, because while the three problems listed above have been building for some time, this one has exploded since the invention of social media about 10 years ago. Put simply, when there is a catastrophic failure to live up the brand promise, millions of people find out in an instant via social media. 10 years ago, nobody would have known about the doctor getting dragged off a United Airlines flight. Today, it's an instant PR crisis of epic proportions.

The good news is that all of these "negatives" can be made to work in reverse as positives if you have an "experience first" brand strategy. Under-promising and over-delivering has helped many brands achieve explosive growth in the past few years. Brands like Chik Fil A, Shake Shack and even Starbucks in their heydey have all benefitted from treating their brand as an idea to lived, first and foremost and talked about second.

To answer the question we posed at the start of this post, your brand is not a story, it is blueprint for a set of experiences that capture your customers' hearts, minds and loyalty. It's an anchor that you can build a successful business on.

It's much harder work to do it this way of course, because you know have to treat brand management as an operational challenge that's solved through the triad of design, delivery and innovation, but I'm not sure that brands these days have any other options left. The "all talk" projected reality brands of yesterday are rapidly going the way of the dinosaur, and even the solace of regulated industries won't keep them on life support for ever.

Simon Pearce