The challenge is clear by now: Intrusive, interruptive, self-centered marketing no longer works the way it once did, and its effectiveness will only continue to diminish in the social age. The question is what will replace the legacy model.
There’s a one-word answer: stories.
It makes sense. Finding—or creating—a narrative thread has always been how we as a species find order in the chaos of life. And it’s how smart brands are defining what’s next in the chaos of modern marketing.
What’s the case for content? There are human reasons. Stories are welcome where ads are resisted. They’re shareable and shapeable, constantly changing based on those they touch and those who touch them. They carve the quickest path to the heart and the mind—there’s literally brain science behind how humans interact with stories.
There are also business reasons. Content marketing moves the brand needle, increasing awareness, changing perception, creating desire and driving to purchase. And as stories spread—carried along by audiences—budgets don’t. Stories work.
Here’s another good reason to believe in the power of stories: You have no choice.
The empowered consumer will bypass or ignore communications that aren’t relevant and don’t add value to their lives. Whether through traditional forms such as 30-second spots, or through social bites or feature-length films, brands that want to be invited into the conversation will have to say something that’s worthy of their audience’s time and attention. It’s a truth brands such as Coca-Cola, BMW and Red Bull know intuitively.
After years of observing, creating and judging brand stories, it’s clear that there are some guiding principles behind great brand storytelling. Call them the 10 Commandments of Content.
In the words of cultural anthropologist Simon Sinek, the best brands focus not on what they do or how they do it, but why they do it. Find your why and you’ve found your story. Transcend category by focusing on your role in people’s lives. Compelling brand stories speak to values, to what your brand stands for and why it exists.
Few people enjoy conversations with people who talk only about themselves. Yet for the last 100-plus years, brands have interrupted consumer conversations to make the points they want to make about their attributes and efficacy. That approach no longer works. Content must provide entertainment, education or utility. Stop focusing on what you want to say and start listening to what your audiences want to talk about.
Know your consumer as well as you know yourself. Data-driven insights and intelligence are fuel for creativity, insuring that ideas aren’t just cool but connected to business challenges and relevant to consumers. Intel & Toshiba’s "The Beauty Inside" won the Branded Content & Entertainment Grand Prix at Cannes this year by mining the intersection of a simple human insight and a brand truth: It’s what’s inside that counts.
Be fearless (not reckless) in your commitment to storytelling. While many have dabbled in content marketing, it often is an experiment or add-on at the end of existing marketing and media processes, setting the stage for disappointment. Stories should be at the heart, not the tail, of your marketing plan. Once the narrative is decided, it should be surrounded and amplified in all communications channels. Think of your media plan as a content syndication plan.
Brands have to think like editors and act as publishers. Lose the campaign mentality. Putting a story in the marketplace is not the end, it’s the beginning. Consumers want a role. They want to be advocates for the brands and products they choose. Branded content can deliver on the promise of a two-way conversation and deeper relationship that can turn customers into loyalists, and evangelists. Make sure your content can be discovered, shared and shaped. Acting at the speed of social requires a new creative mindset that understands how to create experiences that are social by design and can move rapidly from idea to execution. Stay close to the data and refine, optimize, and retarget your efforts along the way. If you’re unsure what this means, Google "Oreo Daily Twist."
It doesn’t matter how good your content is if no one sees it. Sounds obvious, but when pressed most brands will admit they create content without a putting in place a clear distribution strategy. It’s not just about what you say, but who you say it to, where and when. Understand how you will use owned, paid and earned channels to get your message out. It’s not about content vs. distribution; it’s about getting both right.
Live the stories that you tell. A brand narrative should serve the same role as the product it promotes. Coca-Cola doesn’t just talk about sharing happiness; it delivers experiences that allow people to do that, such as a can that splits in two or a vending machine that allows someone in India to buy a Coke for someone in Pakistan. MasterCard ‘s Priceless Cities brings its brand promise to life. Your brand has a personality and a point of view that goes beyond bragging about how great you are, and your audience knows when you strike a false note. Be transparent and true to your story.
This speaks more to education and utility than entertainment, but is fertile ground for content marketing. Your brand has expertise in a topic that can add value to people’s lives. Think Rogaine and confidence. Nike and physical fitness. L’Oreal Paris and self-esteem. Brands can be trusted information providers to audiences. It’s okay to have an agenda; all storytellers do, from the authors of the Bible to Steven Spielberg, Daft Punk to Macy’s. The audience is okay with that as long as the source of the information is clear, and the content is relevant.
You’re no longer in (sole) control of how your brand is portrayed and perceived. Gone are the days of the 100-page rulebook of what a brand mascot will and won’t do. Whether by creative partners or consumers, your brand image is influenced by multiple sources beyond the brand manager or creative agency. Embrace that reality to build credibility with audiences. Brands still need to look after their interests, but the reality is that a brand is poured through multiple filters, including those of fans and detractors. Jimmy Kimmel’s BMW tie-in, in which the brand bought out all the ad time in an episode and then gave it back to the show’s host to program as he pleased, is a great example of a brand winning by letting go.
Forget the idea of non-working media dollars. Storytelling must be accountable marketing. Define clear business objectives going in so they can be measured coming out. Don't invest in content because it’s cool or opportunistic. Invest in content because you believe it can be a powerful and effective part of the marketing mix and help achieve business goals. UM’s proprietary research shows that custom content is 92% more effective than traditional TV advertising at increasing awareness and 168% more powerful at driving purchase preference. Make sure your approach to storytelling is strategic, disciplined, and connected to real KPIs.
While there’s no one path to success, putting story at the heart of your marketing is your best shot at a happy ending.
Scott Donaton is global chief content officer of UM. The author of the book "Madison & Vine," Donaton served as president of the Branded Content & Entertainment jury at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity in 2013.