In an era of Internet and social media, how does an organization stand out in a crowded, cluttered, noisy marketplace? Connect with homo narrans. Theorist Walter Fisher (1984) proposed a communication construct based on the concept of homo narrans—the human storyteller.
According to Fisher, human beings are natural storytellers, we construct meaning and reality based on stories, and we use the tools of narrative storytelling to decide “good reasons” for our decisions. Homo narrans requires a narrative balance between reason and emotion, yet each person will have her own preference for the required balance. Fisher called this theory Narrative Paradigm, and brand professionals have been applying Narrative Paradigm theory to branding ever since.
So let’s use Narrative Paradigm as a lens, and consider the top 10 best practices for communicating organizational identity and brand to homo narrans.
- Who are you? Identify your brand personality.
Just like a person, your organizational identity has a personality, an organizational DNA, with elements that makes it unique in the marketplace. Think of an archetype, like a character in a movie. If your brand was staring in a movie, who would it be–The Hero, The Jester, The Mentor, The Caregiver, The Rebel (Herskovitz & Malcom, 2010; Yohn, 2014)? Define your organization’s character. Once you know its character, then you can start crafting its story.
- What’s your story? Craft your brand narrative.
Storytelling and narrative tropes are touted as one of the most powerful mechanisms for connecting with stakeholders and creating brand identity (Cooper & Miller, 2010; Herskovitz & Malcolm, 2010; Kantor, 2011; Lundquist et al, 2013; Stutts & Barker, 1999; Wolstenholme, 2008; Yohn, 2014). When crafting your brand story, consider narrative devices such as plot, conflict, characters, and archetypes, as these create deep emotional experiences for audiences (Herskovitz & Malcolm, 2010; Wolstenholme, 2008; Yohn 2014). What’s your organization’s origin story? What problems does your organization solve? What do employees, vendors, customers, and other stakeholders find attractive about your company? Capture this story in words and images and use them as the basis of organizational communication across channels
3. Speak to their heart. Connect emotionally.
Homo narrans is moved by stories that connect with her emotions. Stories allow consumers to identify with and emotionally bond with a brand, engendering brand loyalty and increased revenue (Herskovitz & Malcolm, 2010). Stories have been determined to be a determinant factor in establishing brand authenticity, with consumers feeling that brands were relatable and “for them” as a result of the story (Kantor, 2011; Yohn, 2014). The best way to create an emotional connection is to give your customer an experience.
- Give them a story. Create an experience.
When you create an experience for your customer, either while engaging your organization, using your product, or in your customer communications, you go from telling your own story to giving your customer a story of her own. Your customers go from observers of the story to co-creators in your organization’s brand narrative development (Wolstenholme, 2008).
- Haters gonna hate.
Not every company or product is for everyone. And not all stories will resonate with all audiences. That’s fine. Part of the strength of the tips that come before—creating a clear brand identity, crafting a brand narrative, creating emotional connections and experiences—is that they allow an organization to laser focus on their target audience (Solis, 2013; Yohn, 2014). A strong negative reaction from certain audiences can be the best proof that the story you’ve crafted for your organization is hitting the emotional mark. Some of the most successful brands ever—Coca Cola, Walmart, Starbucks, Nike—have generated strong, vocal anti-brand communities (Hollenbeck & Zinkhan, 2010). Don’t let the haters sway you from your core brand narrative.
- Let’s give them something to talk about: the Connected Consumer.
All this experience and emotion is going to drive consumers talk to and about their brand experiences. In particular, the rise of “Gen C” (Solis, 2013), the connected consumer amplifies the power of the shared brand experience. These social media power users are “‘always on’ audiences sharing real-world experiences as they happen” (p. 39) and are driving a shift in word of mouth marketing “from one-to-one to one-to-many conversations” (p. 39). Help these power sharers by meeting them where they live—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs—and providing them with shareable content related to your brand. Photos, videos, testimonials (the more creative the better) give the “always on” story sharers something to share.
- You have two ears but only one mouth: listen to customers.
All of the communication channels available as a result of Internet and social media technologies provide powerful opportunities to tell your organizational story (Solis, 2013). However, here’s an important word of caution: ever been on a date and your dinner companion only talks about him/herself? Don’t be “that” person. Not only do customers now expect “two-way dialogue or conversation” (Weller, 2015) with brands, they value the endorsements (or denunciations) of other consumers over the assertions of a brand. Thus, organizations can benefit from customer endorsements and self-organizing brand-loyal communities to provide third-party validation of their brand.
- Don’t change. Be consistent in brand message and activities.
Storytelling can be a two-edged sword. The mental and emotional processes that make stories so powerful for audiences can backfire if there is a lack of consistency or authenticity in the message (Stutts & Barker, 1999). Homo narrans is sensitive to the elements of a story, and both the logic and the emotion of the story must make sense. If customers feel that the experience with an organization doesn’t match the story, they are quick to become alienated from the brand, and to share their bad experiences with other.
- Now change! Managing organizational growth.
A further challenge related to brand consistency involves organizational growth. Organizations must balance consistency of brand (activities and messages) with brand growth (Jones, 2012; Yohn, 2014). As Jones (2012) describes, brands must balance evolution with stagnancy, with “the line between growing with consistency and losing brand consistency…a thin one” (p. 23). The story of an organization will change as the organization grows, but the personality most likely will remain the same. Don’t be tempted to stray from your organization’s core ideology in the name of growth. You risk losing your most ardent fans.
10. And the beat goes on: weaving the never ending story.
You’ve done all this work and now you’re ready to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Not so fast. Wolstenholme (2008) describes brand narrative as “the never ending story,” a co-creative process with customers and stakeholders that must simultaneously remain consistent, yet flexible, a story that must feel complete in the moment but must always be in the process of entering a new chapter. Thus, for organizations, narrative must be treated, not as a one-time investment of resources, but as an ongoing part of strategic business development.
Case Study: Spanx
A great example of an organization that has applied all of these best practices to their brand creation, growth, and maintenance is Spanx. Spanx is a women’s apparel company focused on shapewear and active wear. Launched in 2000 by Sara Blakely, working from her apartment in Decatur, GA, Spanx grew to a billion-dollar brand without ever spending a dollar on advertising. Over the last 15 years of corporate growth and product line development, Spanx has managed to maintain a consistency of messaging and branding started by the founder when she worked alone to promote her product.
Spanx knows who it is and isn’t afraid to shout it from the rooftops. “Spanx is edgy, fun, extremely catchy, and for a moment it makes your mind wander (admit it). Plus it’s all about making women’s butts look better, so why not?” (Sara’s Story, 2015).
Spanx embraces its origin story and consistently shares it:
Spanx founder Sara Blakely was getting ready for a party when she realized she didn’t have the right undergarment to provide a blemish-free look under white pants. Armed with scissors and sheer genius, she cut the feet off her control top pantyhose and the Spanx revolution began! (Releases, 2015)
In the Spanx narrative, the founder is the main character. She’s the archetypal champion, battling the dragon of cellulite for women everywhere by going forth and reinventing control top hosiery for a modern generation. Spanx doesn’t worry about audiences who hate being squished like sausage into shapewear–they are looking for women who care about, and will pay for, a garment to make them look good in their other expensive garments.
To connect with customers, Spanx has created a vibrant and compelling look to its packaging, and has stayed consistent in its visual cues since the first pair of Spanx hit the market.
While Spanx is a product-based company, it does not focus on selling products. It sells ““an entire body-enhancing, wardrobe wowing solutions company” (Spanx Inside Out, 2015). Thus, even as the line has progressed from shapewear to jeans and active wear, the brand still seems on point and consistent.
As Spanx moves into its next stage–operating its own retail locations, it will be interesting to see how (and if) the experience stays congruent with the narrative.
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