Co-creating the Brand Story World

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The most powerful and commonly used equipment for content creation this days is the mobile phone. Capturing and editing capabilities are coupled with online connectivity. The scariest part? It is in the hands of all consumers out there.

Meanwhile, the platform for distribution, the media, which was previously controlled by a powerful few public or private entities, has been totally fragmented by social media. Every consumer on social media can be a content creator and publisher.

As seen from the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner campaign touched on in Part 3 of this series and many others, there is no way in this time and age for a brand to fully control how and when its imagery and story pan out to its audience. Consumers (especially when they are emotionally invested in your brand) would be actively contributing their stories which will have an impact (positive or negative) on the overall brand narrative.

Welcome to the Age of Co-creation.

Case Study:

Dove’s marketing and branding direction has been pretty consistent after the success of their initial “evolution” ad in 2004. They then started to feature “normal” people instead of models and celebrities as seen in the #realbeautysketches campaign mentioned in Part 2. They also encouraged the audience to co-create by using #beautyis hashtag posting selfies with no edits and filters (see report on Marie Claire) as well as empowering women with #mybeautymysay just to highlight a few.

Evidently, Dove continues to create campaigns each year, reinforcing and managing their consistent story world. This is the “world” of “misguided perception of beauty” where “residents” are people battling to keep up with societal definition of beauty (and we all know there are plenty of them). By championing this pain point, Dove has successfully pulled in many emotionally invested audience.

More importantly though, by creating an umbrella rally cry, Dove has expanded the story world by “consolidating” the audience stories which will otherwise be untold or be lost in the sea of content in cyberspace. The whole (story world) is definitely greater than the sum of the parts (of individual stories). Not to mention “user generated content” (or earned media), is the most authentic and powerful communication.

In fact, the concept of transmedia rests on the creation of a universal story world that can span across the different media. For example, “chapters” of this story can be told on radio, social media, from game consoles or even theme parks (in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, the story started from the theme park).

The Art of Balance

Before we get carried away, there are caveats.

Firstly, when the audience buy into your story world, they would expect your brand values and purpose to be consistent every time they interact with the brand. Hence, the “Content Compass” is not just a marketing or content production idea. It has to permeate the entire organisation. Everyone must understand and live out the values and purpose. The “true north” is very much a business strategic direction for all staff. Why so? Well, not only will the customer touch points be across multiple departments (and not just sales or after sales), every employee is also a potential customer and content creator. There is nothing more damaging than having a disgruntled employee bitch about the brand on social media.

When my ex-colleague and digital communications and brand storytelling guru Marco Sparmberg started an initiative in Singapore’s national broadcaster, Mediacorp to allow the employees to take turns in taking over the corporate twitter account, I believe there were quite a lot of resistance and “cold sweat”. However, what eventually turned out was an opportunity for the public to have a rare behind-the-scenes peek into the broadcaster’s operations through the eyes of employees. This is so much better (and authentic) than any public relations efforts. Do read about this initiative here.

On the other hand, while I’ve sung praises of Dove’s efforts so far, they have their faux pas moments as well. I can only assume that somewhere down the line, the “true north” became another “poster quote on the wall” for some.

So it is of utmost importance that the “true north” is not just lip service but something that every employee believe in as well. For that to happen, “Story Inception” should be applied within the company too as a form of narrative leadership, ensuring that the story is part of new hire initiation and that the narrative is constantly updated and shared.

Secondly, co-creating means there is no absolute control. This may be counter intuitive to many PR practitioners. But truth be told, it has been a long standing “social media 101” practice that we should never attempt to delete or take down “negative” posts in a high handed manner. Of course, there are also extreme cases that warrant such actions but generally, we do not.

What is crucial instead, is to have good social listening and creative responses. Marco was instrumental in helping Mediacorp to set up key events social monitoring and response “war rooms”. The sole objective for such teams is what I would term as “Content Equalising”. Just like the equaliser of a sound system, we need to amplify content that are in line with the direction of our story narrative while reducing the impact of those that are off tangent.

The art of dealing with seemingly negative content would require another series of posts but one of the best case study (from a public sector agency no less!) is the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) response to IKEA’s tongue-in-cheek ad (read about it here). The response was quick and more importantly communicated why the bench was more expensive than normal. All while having an astute balance of returning a dig at IKEA (#YouGetWhatYouPayFor) as well as a plea for leniency (#GiveChancePls) which put LTA at the audience’s level instead of being high and mighty. As far as I know, the issue surrounding the price of the bench did not escalate further and LTA won brownie points and understanding on their public service approach (brand values).

Another good case reference would be how Nas Daily responded to criticism of its video on Singapore (read about it here). Caution is needed though… Nas has amassed a huge following that he can leverage on to support him and to help drown the negativity. Typically, his humourous response is good enough to deflect the negative comments.

In conclusion, Story Inception looks at bringing the audience into our story in a deeper level engagement. It involves a holistic approach for the whole company/brand and is definitely not something to be adopted as a mere one-off “campaign”. Contrary to the sinister idea of manipulating the minds of audience, Story Inception requires a brand to be consistently true to its purpose and values, to be “vulnerable” by being open but at the same time inviting like-minded fans and advocates to co-create a shared narrative.

In co-creating the brand story, the story never ends…

This article was first published on Medium