TWENTY-PLUS YEARS into this whole branding and B2B marketing thing and Mark Speece swears he has seen it all. That was until earlier this year when the world shut down and everything seemingly went blank. Once everyone moved past the shock and dismay, it was time to get down (and back) to business. But how? For the first time in a long while, there was a come-to-Jesus moment on how anyone was going to engage in a time when face-to-face meetings were out of the question. We are, after all, social animals.
But here is the thing: While in-person engagement is out for the time being, there are plenty of opportunities to connect. In fact, Speece, founder of branding and marketing firm StokeSignals, says that while ramping up your social media presence and jumping headfirst into the virtual meeting world are solid strategies, now is the perfect time to return to your brand ideals and brand narrative as a starting point. That includes listening with empathy and then figuring out what authentically makes sense for you and your people.
“The best thing brands can do is listen to their clients and customers,” Speece says. “What do they need? What are they asking for? How can you support them? Think outside the box: Everyone is doing webinars or sending emails that say little more than ‘We support you’ and ‘Here’s how we are responding.’ But there are other things you could be doing for your community. Don’t do something just because everyone else is doing it.”
Speece is probably the right person for a moment like this. He started StokeSignals—a combined, associative name— as a way to stir or shake up and excite brand narratives. Speece’s expertise in brand strategy, brand architecture, naming, and name systems has been employed by some of the world’s best-known branding firms. Prior to StokeSignals, he headed the verbal branding practices at FutureBrand and Landor New York, as well as corporate branding for Sterling Brands. Over the years, he has managed large-scale, global repositioning and brand architecture development for clients like Ford, GE, General Motors, Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble, Turner Broadcasting, and Visa.
No matter the situation, he believes that without a well-thought-out communications strategy, a brand’s narratives— likely plural and vague—run the risk of being defined by the actions of customers, individuals, or groups. And while some could be good, and on strategy and in line with what brand managers want, there is just as much likelihood the narratives will run counter to everything the brand stands for.
“A strong brand is critical to building a valuable and defensible business,” Speece warns.
So, does that make it easier or harder to control your brand’s narrative with everything going on today? Speece says it is both. “Given the plethora of communications channels, it’s easier than ever for a brand to proactively share its narrative with the world. It’s also easier than ever for customers to call out brands who’ve misstepped or strayed from their purported narrative. In today’s current environment, we are all looking for more meaningful messages and efforts from everyone and everything—brands, included. That’s a high bar, and it’s more important than ever that brands step up to meet the challenge.”
MAKING A CONNECTION
Ask any of today’s marketers and they will tell you that the goal of every brand is to make a rational and emotional connection with its community. Because people are emotional animals, when choosing between two similar offerings, the tiebreaker often is how they feel about the company.
A brand narrative creates a connection by telling a story. People remember, identify with, and relate to one another through stories. Brand narratives that do not do this are just sales propositions in disguise, which by the way, consumers are pretty good at spotting.
Ali Payani, CEO of LookinLA, believes that in the end, brand’s narrative must deliver all the value propositions of the company to its customers. The whole brand and marketing strategy must be built upon the overall narrative to increase engagement, commitment, and trust among the clients in every scenario.
It is one of the tenets of LookinLA, the company he co-founded when he came to the States several years ago. Today, LookinLA helps brands improve their digital marketing executions using data-driven marketing techniques—a narrative Payani says he and his team meticulously crafted going door to door, project by project.
“When your brand narrative and message connect with customers’ emotions, you will create a trusted community where your customers will believe in you, no matter the changes,” Payani says. “But the brand should also be careful about the delivery of the brand narratives.”
Cole Baker-Bagwell spent two decades working in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street helping to solve complex sales and strategy puzzles for some of the world’s largest companies. Her success during that period came from merging smart business strategy with her own long-standing mindfulness practices. Today, as the founder of Cool Audrey™, her approach to the branding game helps create higher levels of trust, connection, engagement, focus, and understanding with her clients. The success is in the narrative.
“Your narrative is the anchor that defines your company,” Baker-Bagwell says. “It’s the story of who you serve, what you do, and why it matters. It’s the magnetic thing that attracts people initially and the very one they will come to know you for and rely on.”
Riding in on the story you not only tell, but stick by, is critical, especially with myriad competition, uncertainty, noise, and historical unrest out there today. “People are frightened, distracted, and suffering from information overload,” Baker-Bagwell says. “There are a lot of what I call ‘pop-up posers’ who are taking advantage and capitalizing on the host of challenges we’re all facing. They are disingenuous and that’s creating skepticism. Unless you’re a super established company with a good track record, those things can make it really tough to reach the people and build the trust that leads to positive outcomes in business. So, I do think people have to work mindfully. They have to get super intentional and make sure that they are meeting people for the right reasons in the right ways.”
On the flip side, Baker-Bagwell says today’s landscape—defined by cultural, political, and health unrest—holds tremendous opportunity for brands who can get it right. Some people are looking for a soft place to land and a big hug, while others are fired up and want change.
“They’re looking for something they can believe in,” Baker-Bagwell says. “I think this is especially true of the GenZ population. If a brand can manage to acknowledge the human challenges we’re facing, connect with people to convey a sense of comfort, and demonstrate that they represent something authentic that people can trust, they can be successful in creating awareness, loyalty, and a new wave of people with brand allegiance.”
In the end, the key to connection is stirring the soul or making people feel something genuine and trustworthy. Some people need a soft place to land. Others want a brand that causes them to think differently. Most everyone is looking for something to believe in. Enter your narrative. When you get it right, it can warm your heart, break your heart, bring a tear to your eye, or a smile to your face hours later.
The choice is up to you.