Whitespace: What's your story? The power of strategic storytelling

Issue 77: September 2011

It would have been considered a bizarre concept 20 years ago, but increasingly people expect to be 'friends' with the organisations they deal with in a relationship based on two-way communication, shared interests and common values.

The key to making this happen, according to advocates of the emerging trend known as strategic storytelling, is to communicate the back-story of your organisation to encourage consumers, suppliers and staff to become die-hard advocates of your brand.

Virgin does it. Apple excels at it. But you don't have to be a big firm to tell a good story. Often the best narratives come from small companies that achieve a competitive advantage by proving they are not just another faceless corporate entity.

Once upon a time…

Strategic storytelling isn't about fiction; ultimately revolves around the people who make up an organisation. And rather than consisting of just one story, the approach works best as a collection of smaller narratives that create a bigger picture of organisational culture.

Storytelling becomes strategic when it's factored into all communication channels rather than being a one-off tactic. Ideally it should be embedded and consistent across all activities, from internal communication to advertisements, social media to staff bios.

Approaches to storytelling include describing a brand's history, its reason for being, struggles on the road to success and, of course, its people. Beer brand Guinness does an outstanding job of telling its story but you don't have to be big to succeed. Strategic storytelling can also be used by smaller businesses. Adventure and events company Red Balloon is one of many SMEs that have found innovative ways to reveal 'what makes them tick'.

Storytelling in action

Unlike many traditional forms of marketing communication, strategic storytelling isn't about the hard sell or a focus on functional product or service characteristics. Instead it allows people to draw their own conclusions about whether a brand is right for them.

Strategic storytelling isn't a passive, one-way conversation. When done well, it fosters engagement by encouraging people to remember, repeat and even add to a brand's story.

A recent Canadian Tourism Commission initiative designed to boost internal travel offers a good example of engagement. By asking Canadians to share their favourite travel destinations the Locals Know campaign created a rich tapestry of stories that built a larger narrative about local tourism.

Looking to the future

Effective storytelling focuses on more than just the past or present by also describing the future. Stakeholders want to know your vision; they want to know where your brand is taking them.

One of the best ways to start thinking about a brand's story is to consider the potential of the question 'what if?' This simple proposition forces organisations to look beyond their day-to-day activities to describe a future that appeals to customers, investors and staff.

Once the most compelling direction is identified, both a back-story and projection of what the future holds can start to unfurl. There is of course no one size fits all approach. Every organisation has a different story to tell, but to get you thinking about the possibilities here a few primers:

> Be a news hound – Think like an internal journalist to track down small stories that reflect the company's overall brand personality

> Reliving the past – History doesn't have to be boring, the past comes alive when colourful characters and fascinating facts are added

> The truth doesn't hurt – Don't embellish or fabricate, where you have people you have authentic stories, it's often just a matter of hunting them down

> A transmedia approach – Don't just tell your stories on a solitary web page, think about how a narrative can be told across all channels including social media

> Make your story their story – Encourage readers to tell their stories about your brand or sector to encourage a higher degree of engagement


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