The principal role of a chief marketing officer has always been to be a great storyteller.
Once upon a time, this meant waxing eloquently about the brand’s promise, and giving people a hero to cheer for and something to believe in. The process of storytelling used to be fairly simple: create an ad, place it in a magazine, newspaper or on the radio or TV, and you’re done. Today, we live in an entirely different world – one in which brand narratives are often co-opted, moulded and even created by consumers.
This means the journey now taken by brands and consumers is filled with many more twists and turns. It spans the web, social networks and mobile devices, a dazzling array of digital means to access information, make decisions, buy products and then share purchases, opinions and ideas about brands.
Each of these stops along the journey is a point of light in the digital mosaic that creates a brand narrative built on billions of interactions. And this narrative can become something wildly different from the one the CMO originally envisioned.
How can today’s digital CMO navigate this new landscape? Here are a few simple steps you can take to chart the best course for your brand story.
1. Craft narratives around the right digital storytelling tools
There’s no pun intended when I say: “Don’t leave customers to their own devices.”
Every digital CMO should devise ways to guide the consumer to connect with the brand story on different platforms. Think about where your brand fits into all that pinning, posting, sharing, filtering and tagging. Help consumers engage with your narrative by making it easy to digest and share it, using the tools that matter most to your audience.
At the same time, take into account that your narrative needs to be designed to succeed across multiple devices – sometimes simultaneously, sometimes sequentially.
Consumers use iPads and other tablets in very different ways than they do desktops and smartphones. While smartphones may offer very small visual landscapes, brand stories can still be delivered to these devices in simple and compelling ways.
Sephora, the beauty and cosmetics retailer, offers a mobile app to help customers navigate its stores, a website for more traditional eCommerce and an iPad experience for inspiration and discovery. The company has also enabled its fans to actively share and solicit advice via Facebook and Pinterest.
Each digital experience, while created for different channels, speaks to a common storyline: Sephora’s dedicated customers are ‘beauty insiders’, ready to share the latest and greatest in beauty trends with their friends.
2. Build bendable storylines
Because the customer feedback loop can completely reshape a brand story, the digital CMO must be ready to embrace a new course. One way is to design a brand discourse that is flexible from the start. By building these bendable storylines, CMOs will be ready to co-opt a better narrative if one emerges.
Agile narratives can allow you to take advantage of positive trends or even world-changing events. Being prepared is of the utmost importance. Be sure to free up resources after a campaign hits the marketplace so that if something resonates with your customers, you can allocate funding accordingly and focus on what – unexpectedly or not – is taking root.
Airbnb, a service enabling people to rent out their spare rooms or even entire homes, is a great example of a company that understands the new age of shapeable storylines.
During Hurricane Sandy last fall, Airbnb’s community base in New York City launched a microsite that allowed people living in the storm-ravaged region to donate rooms and couches to give Sandy’s victims free places to stay. This new free-shelter option required a quick redesign of the website’s booking and payment system. No doubt it was an investment well worth the effort, since it both aligned with the community-centric ideal at the core of Airbnb’s brand story, and took it in an entirely new direction.
3. Create content worth sharing
Before the digital age it didn’t much matter if a company’s content was worth sharing because there wasn’t usually the option to do so. ‘Sharability’ is now a key ingredient of any successful brand narrative that has a chance of resonating with consumers. Paradoxically, if you can connect to emotions and ideas that are bigger than your products alone, they will speak for themselves.
TED, the non-profit conference organisation, has perfected this model. Its tagline ‘ideas worth spreading’ hits the nail on the head. Instead of stacking its site with the thousands of TED talks taped each year, the organisation chooses only the most compelling to highlight and puts all its resources, digital and otherwise, behind promoting one outstanding talk per day. This highly curated approach is what has made the brand so successful – and it’s the reason that TED talks surpassed 1 billion views worldwide last year.
Today’s digital CMO has a harder job than the CMOs of the past. But ultimately, it’s a more exciting one. As chief storyteller, you have more opportunities to develop compelling and relevant brand identities by including your customers in the narrative-creation process right from the start. Consumers have shown time and time again that they trust brands that trust them. And while sometimes scary, that can’t be a bad thing.
Debi Kleiman is president of the Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange.