One of the things I like to do with my free time is to read dense, 2,900-word opinion pieces by McKinsey consultants-- I read them so you don't have to. A particular February 2015 piece by Jonanthan Gordon and Jesko Perrey resonated with me because of its emphasis on the necessity of storytelling in marketing. At Phabulousity , we're big believers in the power of storytelling. I'd argue, in fact, that all of your marketing communications, through every channel and touch point, must tell a sincere, consistent, and resonant story. Fall short on any one of these essential elements, and consumers will dismiss your efforts-- and maybe even take their business elsewhere.
The McKinsey article is predicated on the dawn of a new "golden age of marketing"-- a familiar premise, considering that marketers have been predicting a new "golden age of marketing" since at least the Pleistocene epoch. Amidst the usual nods to big data, the digital economy, and organizational change is a plea to marketers to embrace storytelling. Money quote:
Creativity is important in storytelling, obviously. But creativity is also cheap-- every successful marketing agency can provide it. What's in short supply in marketing today are the elements of sincerity, consistency, and resonance. To tell a believable story, you must balance these elements so the story rises organically from the customer experience, rather than allow an agency to graft on a story at odds with what your customers know to be true.
For an example of a story that doesn't pass the sniff test with consumers, consider McDonald's "Signs" commercial that debuted during this year's Golden Globe awards in the US. In case you missed it, here it is:
Even as marketing reaches new heights with technology-enabled measurement, the importance of the story hasn’t diminished. But ways to tell it are morphing continually as the stuff of storytelling encompasses richer digital interactions, and mobile devices become more powerful communications tools. In this world, creativity is in greater demand than ever.
Many commentators found the ad heartwarming and effective:
While many others found it galling or worse:
On the surface, the ad was well-crafted, telling a clear and compelling story: At McDonald's, we care. We're more than just purveyors of empty calories; we're a part of your community, too. To many viewers, however, something seemed off. The element of the ad that most divided the commentators was, in a word, its sincerity.
No one was claiming that the ad was dishonest, or that the signs were photoshopped or otherwise created specifically for the ad. McDonald's even set up a Tumblr to tell the stories behind some of the individual signs. What the naysayers doubted was the ad's sincerity-- they simply didn't believe that McDonald's cared as much as the ad implied. When the ad aired it set off a tweet-storm, with commentators assailing the company for everything from its wage practices, to the quality of its food, to its exploitation of such national tragedies as 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing. Despite public opinion being evenly divided, McDonald's couldn't shake the perception that a company rife with falling sales and a poor public image had stumbled once again.
My take: The "Signs" add failed not on sincerity, but rather on the elements of consistency and resonance. The ad was sincere; the signs were real, after all, and most McDonald's restaurants are franchises, with owners who care very much about the communities in which they operate. But the ad did highlight the inconsistency of this message, as consumers seldom experience this level of caring in their daily interactions with the brand. And the ad failed to resonate with these same consumers-- particularly Millennial consumers who prefer quick-fresh options such as Chipotle to McDonald's fast-and-greasy fare-- who sensed that the "we care" story was grafted onto the brand rather than rising organically from the way it conducts business.
For a marketing story to pass muster with consumers, the story must succeed on these three fundamental elements:
New media also dictate that marketers relinquish control of the story as digital interactions with customers become more frequent. Customers want to interact with stories and modify them on social media. Following the kinds of story rules that once made board members and CEOs comfortable is no longer feasible. Social-media programs are consuming a larger share of many marketing budgets. A number of major consumer companies are using interaction centers to monitor and participate in social-media conversations as they develop, sometimes including the promotion of discussions on corporate social-media channels.
This quote is on the money. To craft sincere, consistent brand stories that resonate with your customers, start by listening to them. What do they love about your brand? What are the most successful elements of your customer experience? What must you do to improve the experience? Be certain to fix any outstanding issues, and then tell a story that can withstand the toughest barbs from the Twitter-verse. Are we on the cusp of a "golden age of marketing?" Who knows? There's no reason, however, why you can't jump-start your own golden age of sincere, consistent, and resonant storytelling.
Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.