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How to Help Your Brand Find Its Most Compelling Story

your brand's most compelling story, CMIAs a content marketing consultant, I believe in the power of story, but I’m plagued by one simple question:

Who am I to tell your story?

You may be either working for a company that you did not start or as a consultant tasked with telling a story that you have not lived or do not know intimately. It’s a daunting task. The story has been in the making for years, with many characters (some living, some dead) and many plot twists. There may be many interpretations and points of view; how can you possibly tell it better than the owner?

Where do you go for your brand’s essential story? 

Before you can craft your story, you need to gather the facts and details. Here’s where you need to look.

  • The founder: Go the person who has lived the story, which is likely the founder or owner of the company. While it can be difficult to get face time with the right person at a larger brand, I urge you to get as close to the source as possible. Your time will most likely be limited, so stay on point and ask questions they will be able to answer right then and there.

In the next section I offer some advice on what to ask.

  • The evangelists: Some would argue that a brand’s true “story” does not reside within the company but, rather, with the customers and brand evangelists. It is truer today than any other time in history that the consumer owns the brand more than the company. With social media, a devoted group of customers can make or break a brand in minutes. Through the use of measurement and monitoring tools you can gather data and gain an understanding of how the customer interacts and feels about a brand.

It’s not that hard! Tools like Google Alerts or Twitter’s Advanced Search are free and will enable you to “listen” in on conversations and “hear” what people are actually saying about your brand. This is what we call sentiment data, meaning what you are listening to is how the consumers feel — it may be positive, it may be negative, but whatever it is, it gives you great insight!

But data is, well… just data. I would go one step further: Choose a small group of brand evangelists and have one-on-one conversations with members of the group, setting up a private discussion group centered on their perception of the brand and their story perspective. Call it a quasi focus group. It’s always a good thing to hear it rather than interpret it. Another free tool to use is Zoomerang, which is a survey tool that allows you to ask all kinds of questions to gather data from a group of people.

  • The veterans and newbies: Speaking of perspective, it can be eye opening to talk to a person who has been at the company for 25 years as well as a new hire. You’ll be amazed at what you hear. Also, talk to people from different departments. The folks from HR will have a totally different story than the people from sales and operations. What you will begin to learn is how much the company’s story differs from department to department. What’s even more amazing is that the people from sales and HR are telling their version of the story on a daily basis.
  • The archives: It’s impossible to talk with Henry Ford if you are hired to do a content strategy for the Ford Motor Company. Try getting time with the CEO of Coca-Cola — it ain’t gonna happen. That’s what archives are for.

This is when a content audit comes in handy. Whether the company is 100 years old or 1 year old, it’s likely that it has existing content, and within that content there is a story. Take your time and dig deep. I like to use the Way Back Machine — it’s a great way to see how a brand was selling itself on the web from year to year.

Here’s how it works:

Go to the Internet Archive site, and at the top of the page you will see something called the Way Back Machine.

wayback machine, your brand's most compelling story, CMI

Type in the URL of the website you want to research — let’s put in, as an example. As you can see there are “snapshots” of the website dating back to 1996.

wayback apple calendar, your brand's most compelling story, CMI

Let’s click on May 10, 2000 and see what we get!

apple ad, your brand's most compelling story, CMI

Skip ahead to May 11, 2006:

apple ad 2, your brand's most compelling story, CMI

As you can see, you can “remember when…” as well as watch a story unfold as you spend time looking at old website iterations. But be careful! You can easily lose a couple of hours of your day once you get started! 

What questions do you ask?

As mentioned, you need to have a plan for what you will ask when you interview anyone in your company — from the founder to a new hire. There’s a good chance that simply asking your company’s founder, “So, what’s your story?” will get you a play–by-play from the beginning to the present; while newbies may talk about how they got hired, but not really have much more to say.

Here is a set of questions I like to use. The reality is that each person will react differently, and his or her answers will vary. The good thing is that no matter how they answer, if they are being authentic, then all of it is potentially useful.

  • How has the company changed since you first started?
  • What would you say makes the brand unique?
  • What makes working here so great?
  • If someone at a cocktail party asks you what you do — how do you answer?
  • If you were in charge of marketing — what would you do?
  • How would you sell your company’s products and/or services?
  • Who would you say are your company’s customers?

Brands are living things — they can change at any given time. So when creating a company’s story, your work is never really done, and there will always be new people with fresh and different perspectives. The goal is to always be one step ahead, always asking, interviewing, and researching so that when someone says, “What’s your story?” you’ll have an answer.

As an example, I am big fan of Coca Cola’s “Content 2020” initiative — to double its revenue by 2020 (Joe Pulizzi wrote a post about this back in January of this year). Coca Cola realizes that to do this, it needs to move from creative excellence to content excellence; and it will do this through the stories it tells, as well as the stories its consumers tell.

In fact, a majority of the initiative will focus on story. It will be through consumer engagement via social channels that it will put the brand into the hands of Coca Cola fans around the world. With over 45 million fans on Facebook, the brand has created a space where stories are shared, liked, and commented on every day. I especially like the company’s Facebook “mission statement:”

coke's mission statement, your brand's most compelling story, CMI

Add in 6,000,000 followers on Twitter, 70,000 YouTube subscribers, and quite an active Pinterest community and you have the stage set. The bottom line is that Coca Cola is putting its efforts toward content marketing and banking on the idea that story is what is going to continue to make it one of the most popular brands in the world.

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Top image via Bigstock