In 2004, Neville Isdell, Coca Cola’s then-CEO and Chairman, declared the giant drinks company “creatively bankrupt.” The company had no creative agenda and no comprehensive global strategy. It didn’t even have an international campaign ready to support the launch of its new Coke Red brand.
Looking today at Coca Cola Journey, a website the company launched in 2012 as part of its Content 2020 plan, it’s hard to imagine that the conglomerate ever struggled with ideas or with brand marketing.
The site is presented as a magazine with sections on food and culture, business and brands. Articles tell stories of the first African-American woman to appear in the company’s advertising, the employees who create the product, and even Coke-based recipes. In one section, photographer Scott Kelby takes readers behind the scenes of a shoot on board a US aircraft carrier. Nowhere in the story is Coca Cola or any of its products even mentioned. They don’t have to be. By placing the interview in its online magazine, the drinks company is associating itself with a symbol of American power and patriotism.
The pictures and the text are telling a story: the story of Coca Cola is the story of America.
That strategy of using storytelling to build brands, forge customer loyalty and turn a product into an experience that customers will remember and treasure isn’t new. But it has become increasingly important for companies using an ever-broadening range of channels to reach and retain customers around the world, and visual imagery is a vital part of that storytelling.
Once Upon A Time
The definition of a story in marketing can vary considerably. For some experts, it can be something as simple as the advertising image of a model wearing an article of clothing. That story is aspirational: “buy these clothes and you will be magically transformed into this character.” But it’s simple and fragile, a story that’s credible only for as long as the customer is willing to believe that he or she is only a short step from the ideal person shown in the picture. It may be the most common story told in advertising but as Ankit Oberoi of AdPushup shows, it can be beaten by something as plain as good copywriting: although Men’s Warehouse stresses the story of the ideal wearer, the conversion rate of the company’s website is 25 percent lower than that of rival Jos A. Bank where copywriting has a stronger role.
For other marketing experts though, storytelling goes beyond presenting an image of the perfect use of a product; it reaches the very heart of the company. According to advertising executive Jim Signorelli, author of Storybranding: Creating Standout Brands Through the Purpose of Story:
The truth about any brand is its foundational story. It’s the one about universal beliefs and values that customers will readily identify with. It’s the one that is propelled by a brand’s internal cause that is passionately and irrevocably adhered to.
Many brands, Signorelli argues, have lost touch with that core story, that sense of who they are and what sets them apart from other businesses. Instead of talking in their own voice and hoping that customers will like them, they try to copy the customer’s voice in an attempt to please them, and end up with mimicry that’s inauthentic, easy to see through — and easy to reject.
Stories that are true, well-told and reflect how the company sees itself however, can be immensely powerful:
They get around our natural resistance to being sold by not pushing beliefs. Rather, they stimulate and resonate by inviting us to acknowledge beliefs that are already in place. They do this by fascinating us with identifiable characters and by inviting us to empathize with their experiences. Certainly all stories intend to sell us something…. But stories reveal truth, they don’t preach it.
There may even be scientific evidence for the power of stories to persuade and build relationships. Researchers in Italy have discovered the existence in the brain of “mirror neurons,” a special kind of brain cell that fires not just when you perform an action but when you see someone else performing the same action. Watching someone eat will trigger an empathetic reaction in someone who sees the diner — and a story of a company or a product will evoke similar experiences in a potential customer who sees or reads that story.
When companies tell stories about themselves, customers don’t just listen; they experience that story for themselves, creating a bond of association that’s powerful and long-lasting.
Catalogs Are Storybooks
Companies are telling these stories in different ways and with varying degrees of success.
One of the first companies to make strong use of storytelling in marketing was Banana Republic. The company was formed in 1978 by Mel and Patricia Ziegler, a journalist and an illustrator, and its name reflects the firm’s origin as a military surplus clothing store. The first catalog the company produced made use of the founders’ writing and art skills, and was stapled together on their kitchen table. Those early catalogs, some of which are now collectors’ items, intended to do a lot more than show the clothes the company stocked or even to sell those clothes; they sold adventure.
As customers browsed the pages, read the stories and admired the artwork, they imagined themselves climbing mountains or trekking English fells. When they ordered the hats and the jackets, they weren’t just buying an item to protect them from the cold; they were buying into an image of themselves as doughty adventurers and globetrotting trekkers.
Today, Banana Republic is owned by Gap. The catalog was discontinued in 1988, by which time those tales and illustrations were making $40 million in sales each year (on top of income from its 100 retail stores). Although still successful, it’s now difficult to tell Banana Republic and its items from Gap’s own stores, from H&M or from Abercrombie & Fitch. Its newly reinstated catalog has been criticized as being indistinguishable from Ralph Lauren’s.
Other companies though, are sticking with the storytelling approach seen in Banana Republic’s old catalogs. Harry and David was the first company to send food by mail and also the first to make a Fruit of the Month offer, enabling it to take money in advance each month for food it would deliver later and on a regular basis.
Right from the company’s beginnings in 1914, its catalogs had a folksy, rural feel, enabling readers to believe that they were getting produce directly from the orchard.
That tale of rustic production is retained in the catalog a hundred years after the company was founded. The photography uses a palette of natural browns and greens; the text may tell readers that the product is a classic created by its founders.
Mostly though, it’s the photography that tells the company’s story in Harry and David’s catalog. The images have a clear line, the food has been carefully styled but without any extraneous decoration, and the wooden tables and green napkins suggest a farmhouse simplicity. It’s that story that enables the company to sell products at premium prices and deliver through the mail fruit and nuts the customers could easily have picked up at the local supermarket for a fraction of the price. The value of the story is the premium customers are willing to pay for products that are themselves neither rare nor special.
How long companies will continue to be able to make money with print catalogs in the Internet age is debatable. Even Harry and David’s catalog, despite its story of simpler times, is available online where Google’s tags enable orders to be made on the Web.
A more reliable platform for brand storytelling now is social media. By allowing large space for images and some room for text, Facebook has become the ideal place for companies to tell stories about who they are and what they sell.
The story told by Anthropologie, for example, is similar to the one told by Harry and David: it’s a tale of simplicity and rusticity. But while other companies use their Facebook streams to show their products and occasionally their employees, Anthropologie uses it to promote that story. Like the company’s famous window displays, we see pictures that have little to do with anything that can be picked up and taken to a cash desk: darts that show the collection’s palette; a dog wearing a bow tie; a recipe for gin marmalade.
Throughout the timeline, the company creates a balance between its product shots and the context in which it expects those products to be used. In literary terms, Anthropologie’s social media managers spend as much world-building through imagery and communication as they do highlighting the items that their world is selling.
What Makes A Good Story?
The degree to which a story is successful depends on a number of factors. Images that are eye-catching and instantly communicative are vital. But the story should also be authentic. It should tell the customer how the company, its founders and its employees really see themselves — a message that needs to be broadcast and reinforced internally as well as externally.
It should have characters with whom readers and customers can identify. Harry and David’s catalog repeatedly stresses its founders, their choices and their ethos as a way of reminding customers that they’re still buying into a world that hasn’t changed in a century. Banana Republic’s catalogs were presented as travel guides written by Mel and Patricia Ziegler.
And unlike real stories, it should have a beginning, a middle… and no ending. Facebook’s timeline is supposed to be able to show the entire history of a company from its founding through its milestones to the present day.
But each new day demands fresh content and another chapter in the story.