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Why 'S' For Story Should Come Before 'B' For Brand In The Marketing Alphabet


A version of this blog post appeared previously on the Forbes Agency Council blog.

Over the last decade, the field of brand marketing has discovered the power of storytelling. Today, there's a confusing explosion of content, interest and hype around the storytelling concept.

One of my favorite measures comes from LinkedIn, which a few years ago used its historical data to claim that there were zero marketing professionals identifying as storytellers on its platform in 2011, yet more than 570,000 claimed to be storytellers by 2017.

The attention and focus on one of humankind's oldest and most effective communications vehicles is well-deserved. At the same time, all the excitement and hype overlook a fundamental element of storytelling in business: Your story should drive your brand.

Let me put it this way: If your organization has a brand, it may reflect the organization's story. But from what I've witnessed in working with several different companies, it's more than likely that your brand and your story are unfortunate, lonely souls that've probably never been introduced to each other, living separate and unequal lives inside your organization.

How can this be possible? As a business leader, you probably employ internal and external marketing folks who are agog at the colors, logo, tagline, slogan, social profiles, video assets and other paraphernalia associated with your brand. You may also be in love with these marketing tools.

But ask yourself: How do these marketing assets, which probably cost your organization a fair amount to create, maintain and promote, relate to why your organization exists? How do they connect to why someone would want to engage with your organization?

At our firm, we often find that “shiny brand syndrome” replaces a focus on the important fundamental story that defines an organization for its important stakeholders. Essentially, marketing and communications activities are disconnected from the organization’s reason for being.

In the information-soaked 21st century, we are awash in brands that are disconnected from the meaning of the organizations they represent. Our experience has led us to focus on what we call the “Capital S Story” of our clients. This is the story above all others — the one that answers why someone should work for you, partner with you, buy from you or invest in you.

Brand, as most marketers frequently apply it, is often disconnected from the passion of the founder, the genius of the inventor and the dedication of the team that makes it all happen. Granted, it’s pretty darn hard to represent these concepts in the appropriate PMS colors of a logo.

So, how can you connect the story and the brand? It must start with the authentic elements of your organization’s story long before you start daydreaming about the shape or colors of your logo. At our firm, this begins by asking what we’ve come to call the Five Burning Questions. These may vary slightly from industry to industry or organization to organization. In general, they are:

  1. What is your organization’s purpose? (Author Simon Sinek calls this your “why.”)
  2. What is the market demand for what you do?
  3. What competitive position distinguishes you from your competitors?
  4. What communication channels do you use to share your purpose and unique selling point or distinction to the audiences that you need to reach?
  5. What is your call to action? In other words, what would you like your audience to do once they see, hear or experience your story?

Why do we ask these questions? Because, in our experience, those leading an organization rarely agree on the answers! This is one of the reasons why so many classic marketing programs fail — if leaders in the organization can’t agree on the organization’s story, how are customers and potential customers supposed to understand it?

This process is critical. It’s not easy, and we once had a client suspend the work because leaders simply could not agree on the seminal building blocks of their Capital S Story.

In this jaded, look-it-up-on-the-internet, distrustful age, there’s nothing more powerful than the authentic story of your organization, fluently shared in a way that continually (and measurably) engages your audiences. You cannot skip this step and go directly to selecting logo colors. Yes, there is a random chance that will sometimes work; more often it will not. Or more commonly, the results will fall far short of what the organization might have attained if leaders had uncovered and developed the story and then made that the centerpiece of the branding effort.

So why doesn’t this happen more often? Well, for one thing, there’s a sizable worldwide industry that depends on shiny brand syndrome. As well, it was much easier in earlier times to focus simply on being different to get attention. But the world is over that now. We can look up an organization’s real story on the internet, and if it doesn’t match the brand, you’re in for some unwanted attention.

I’m not saying that an organization with a great story shouldn’t have great brand assets. I am saying that if you don’t know your story, or if you don’t reflect that story in your brand, then you are doing your organization and every stakeholder audience you care about a huge disservice.

So let’s reorder, at least when it comes to this important topic, what we all learned in grade school: When it comes to your organization’s story and brand, “S” for story should come before “B” for brand in your marketing alphabet.

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