The rise of consumer as chief storyteller – and brands’ new supporting role

The beginning of the end of storytelling, announced David’s Berkowitz’ piece in Ad Age last week. The end of storytelling? The end of stories? Impossible. Isn’t storytelling is the most important thing we marketers do? I clicked through to the piece, arguments ready.

I needn’t have worried. Berkowitz’ piece was sharp and insightful–in fact, he articulates a key insight that drives our own marketing campaigns here at IMC.

“Do you think people really get brands’ stories? Think of a brand you love: Apple, Tide, Gucci, Hyundai, or any brand that you identify with. Do you know what its story is? I just paid way too much money to get the new iPhone, but I can’t tell you Apple’s story.”

Storytelling marketers, argues Berkowitz, are like annoying friends that “won’t stop telling stories.” Listeners inevitably tune them out. What if our carefully crafted marketing stories are a crutch that, instead of opening up a deeper connection between brand and consumer, get in the way of the relationship? What if consumers have tuned us out?

The epiphany was driven home when Berkowitz asked his wife, who loves Diet Coke, “What’s Coke’s story?”

The next thing I knew, I was living in a real-world version of the ‘carousel’ moment from ‘Mad Men.’ She started telling me about when Coke came out with cans with red tabs, and all her friends used to collect them. And then she told me about the games she played with her friends in sleepaway camp, where they’d break off tabs from Coke cans as a way to reveal which boys they liked. Thanks to this brand, I was learning more about the person in my life I have been the closest to for nearly a decade.

The end of storytelling, not stories

We are seeing beginning of the end of story broadcasting by brands, not the end of stories.

This is an insight that IMC’s Founder and Chairman, Stephen Reily, glimpsed years ago, during our early work with Vibrant Nation, the leading online community for women 45+ (which we have now expanded to include an influencer network through which IMC conducts digital marketing campaigns for brands like Redken and L’Oreal).

For over six years, IMC has been gathering consumer insights in various categories by listening to our community at Vibrant Nation. Through targeted surveys and by closely observing the forums, we have learned not merely what products members of the community need and want from brands, but also what types of messaging resonate best, and which channels tend to be most effective. We learned early that consumers, especially women, trust other consumers like themselves. They may tune out traditional advertising, but they seek out product recommendations from people they know.

As product recommendations have bubbled up organically from conversations in the Vibrant Nation community, we have learned that:

  • Even typically jaded consumers trust recommendations and reviews that are natural, contextual, and authentic.
  • Consumers are likely to remember personal stories associated with products, often sharing them with others.
  • Because the stories come from real women—not marketers, but friends—consumers feel comfortable asking follow-up questions, even years later. They often reactivate a discussion thread about thinning hair solutions or an anti-wrinkle neck treatment to ask: Do you still love this product? Did it continue to be effective long-term? Did you have to make changes after you moved to another climate?
  • Brands benefit from this evergreen, engaging content—memorable stories that consumers continue to share over time, far beyond the timeframe a typical marketing campaign.

Storymaking, not storytelling

Berkowitz calls this shift a transition from “storytelling to storymaking.”

The future of storytelling isn’t about telling anyone anything. It’s about storymaking, where the brand facilitates and taps into the stories people are creating and sharing with each other. Storytelling is the epitome of the old one-way, broadcast mindset that so many of us in marketing are trying to leave behind. Storymaking, by contrast, is far more fulfilling, and exactly what will matter to the people all of our brands are trying to reach.

IMC’s successful track record of influencer marketing for brands like Verizon, Healthy Choice, Depend, and Reddi-wip demonstrate the truth of this. Consumers engage with a personal blog post in a way they never do with a brand or product page. They identify with bloggers they know as individuals. They comment freely, they ask questions, they feel intrigued, excited, or inspired. The bloggers in IMC’s influencer network are amateurs in the best possible sense: natural storytellers with followers who are genuinely interested in them as people, interested in their day to day adventures.  Their deeply personal stories occasionally happen to include products or brands, and their readers recognize these as authentic.

Powerful marketing stories are about people, not products

Brands willing to yield center stage and embrace their new supporting, storymaking role in the changing marketing landscape will only benefit. And in the meantime, marketers must find ways to activate and facilitate storytelling by brands’ most effective advocates – consumers themselves. When we put customers and their stories at the center of a marketing campaign, that’s when we really get consumers talking.

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