The corporate brand is back, as social media and responsibility force companies to shift attention from their products to themselves as never before. But is ‘branding’ best suited for the task or these times?
Storytelling has recently emerged as an alternative, slipping stealthily into brand territory and performing many of its functions. Practitioners now talk about "getting the story straight", where they once spoke of "brand".
And when the likes of Coca-Cola announces that it is evolving from a manager of brands to a "sharer of stories", you know something big is up. But what? And where does this leave what is supposedly a company’s prize asset, to be experienced everywhere, and "lived" by every employee?
Coke’s well-publicised change of heart offers some clues. Coca-Cola realised it generated only 10% of the online content about the company and its brands. So it adopted a more co-creative approach to stay in the conversation and have some say in the meaning of its brand.
Storytelling – let’s call it word-of-mouth here – is the universal human currency, now given unprecedented circulation and impact through the social web. And so sharing stories as much as drinks is what Coke now claims to be about, teaching the world to sing its songs more inclusively than the "broadcast" and "branding" ethos of old. The 2012 re-launch of its corporate website as an online magazine called Journey signalled its commitment to brand storytelling.
But storytelling has impact and implications beyond the high-profile gestures and content marketing initiatives of global giants. The story coup has so far been bloodless, with practitioners seemingly happy to use 'story' and 'brand' almost interchangeably when there’s communication work to be done.
A brand’s story helps the company stand apart by explaining what it stands for and why, and providing a consistent thread to the messages and experiences it delivers. Just like a brand, in fact, when used to mean more than logos, colours, typefaces and imagery - the mere tangible assets of corporate identity. Which begs the question: do we still need both concepts? If brand and story continue to coexist and collaborate, we need to clarify some roles and responsibilities, and acknowledge some uncomfortable truths.
Branding, despite the more ambitious claims of its advocates, still carries associations of the stamping, fixing, controlling impulse of its inception. Hatched in the realm of ideas, brands are largely abstractions, devised by professionals and done to consumers.
Brand owners seek to control their creations, even when the media for their meanings are the hearts, minds and souls of others; quite a stretch for something originally devised for identifying livestock, and especially hubristic when applied to branding the allegiances of employees who know a little too much about the company to "live" these imposed abstractions with much conviction.
Story, on the other hand, is practised by every culture on the planet nearly every waking (and dreaming) hour of the day. While no one really "lives" a brand, our lives are given shape and meaning by stories, making them far easier to live by. And so internal communications is just one area where story is reaching places branding failed to conquer.
Internal/external? Such distinctions are increasingly being eroded in our connected clamorous world - along with creators/consumers and authors/audiences - giving the ancient lore of storytelling a vital new currency, and questioning the role of that relative upstart brand.
Word of mouth networks
Brands emerged when industrialisation and urbanisation transformed the face of commerce, meaning nobody knew who or what to trust when they bought. Technology is now making our world a village again, as people rely on word of mouth networks far more than broadcast messages. Story is newly relevant because companies need to explain themselves better. If they don’t, others will - with greater visibility and volume.
As long as there is competition brands will serve a purpose. Yet the scope and scale of their ambitions may have to be modified, as storytelling continues to triumph as a connector of people and a conveyor of meaning. With eons of practice and human psychology on its side, this is only understandable.
Robert Mighall is a former Oxford fellow in English literature and one-time editor of the Penguin Classics series.
The article first appeared on www.marketingmagazine.co.uk