The New Custodians of the Corporate Story

September 2017 Overture

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As a Board and Executive Search firm, Fidelio focuses on roles critical for shareholders and stakeholders. This includes conducting Searches for senior communication roles. In the past year the demand for digital experts in communication has increased dramatically.  No longer tucked away in the fringes of the communication function, digital expertise has moved centre stage. It is radically reshaping how businesses engage internally and externally; digitalisation is also redesigning fundamental business processes, and therefore company valuations.

To provide an insight into the opportunity that digital expertise represents we are delighted to welcome Emma Swain, Creative Consultant and former Strategy Director, BBC TV Digital Transformation, as a guest contributor to Overture. 

This Overture takes as its starting point the retail and consumer sectors, and is the second in Fidelio’s series of sector-specific perspectives on digital disruption and innovation. Our previous Overture “Who Drives the Driverless Car?” highlighted the disruption facing the automotive industry in the face of electrification and driverless technologies.

Emma writes on storytelling and the challenge of differentiation which all businesses face regardless of sector or geography. Here is why this should be on the Board agenda.

What Boards need to know about story and the creation of global brands

Introduction

Today it’s no longer enough for your product or service to look good, to be the best, the most convenient or even the cheapest.  Today your product or service  – indeed your entire business – has to have meaning.  Why? Because consumers need businesses to be better; better from the inside out, better in everything they stand for, better with every brand they market.  They need to feel they are spending their money on things that matter, that align with their own beliefs and that will enhance their lives in meaningful ways.

Without this approach, which must be set from the CEO down, a business’s best hope of success is to cling anxiously to its existing market position, and wait nervously until it is toppled by yet another frightening industry disruption.  In today’s fast-paced world, where you are only as good as your last ‘like or share’ businesses that don’t know what they stand for will wither and die.  Those that do will not just survive, they will thrive and dominate.  This is why Boards should care.

Meaningful Story = Memorable Impact

So how do you inject your business with meaning – how do you give your business the best chance of success?  And do it so well that your rivals quake, you make more money, your customers love you and your employees don’t want to work anywhere else?

Here’s how.  You tell a story.  You use story to express your unique and meaningful identity.  Why story?   Because story will get people’s attention – a good story will hold their attention, and a great story will make people take action ie buy your product or service.  Why?  Because story is a connection that stays in the mind.  A well-told story creates enduring memories by attaching emotion and meaning to things that happen.  The most memorable stories chart people’s struggles to achieve their desired goals – against challenging odds.  From Hamlet to War and Peace, Dracula to Cinderella, stories help us understand the difference between good and evil, love and hate.

Stories are how we understand and remember things – when we put experiences and desire together, and we show the struggle to overcome the forces that block that desire, we are using the most powerful communication tool known to man.

The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.

Steve Jobs, Apple

We are hard-wired for story.  We remember the take-out message of a story:  a good story with a clear message will stay with us for life.

And because today’s consumers have such dizzying and complete power over their own attention, businesses ignore the attention-arresting power of story-telling at their peril.

Social Media Redefining Business Processes

So why don’t all businesses use stories to position the company and increase product sales?

Well, they used to… a bit.  Businesses traditionally communicated to consumers through advertising their brands, most memorably with the creative ad campaigns of the 60s.  But during the 80s and 90s people with VCRs could skip TV ads, ending the “spray and pray” approach to advertising.

In the 2000s the digital revolution changed the way brands and customers related to each other.  Companies shifted from “telling and selling” to using big data to create seamless personalised experiences across channel and platforms.

With the rapid rise of social media this quiet digital revolution became noisier.  Social media users started to rely more on each other for information about products, so that whatever a brand ‘pushed’ at them it was up to them whether to buy into it or not.  They also started to use the highly self-referential lens of social media to shape their own identities.  Now they want to see themselves, all their desires, goals, struggles and allegiances, reflected back in all they share, like, save, post – and buy.

This means that in order to thrive businesses and their brands must tell stories consumers can relate to, stories that reinforce their identity and enhance their lives in meaningful ways, stories they themselves will share like, save, and post.

So surely it’s simply a case of targeting a consumer with an appropriate narrative and distributing it on the right platform?  (And, of course, making sure that your whole business, from Board to shop floor, lives by that narrative.)  Well if it’s so easy why have only a handful of corporate brands cracked the You Tube subscription Top 500?  Why is most branded content seen as spam?

Pay Attention to Cultural Change

One challenge is the idea that we are coming to the end of “stuff”.  Retail sales are down, people are seeking experiences over things; one writer describes this trend as ‘Stuffocation’. We simply don’t want to buy more.  Which makes it harder to cut through and sell.

But there’s something else – something much more significant.  Today social media is not just a way of distributing your story-rich content, it must also be the source of your content.

Back in the twentieth century (!) cultural innovation would come from the fringes of society.  Mass media such as TV advertising would translate these innovations for mass consumption.  It took a while.

Today social media brings together these cultural communities and, through the speed and intensity of social media sharing, their ideas spread like wildfire and become the cultural norm.

Humans, in contrast, use their language not merely to describe reality, but also to create new realities, fictional realities

Yuval Noah Harari “What Explains the Rise of Humans?” TED Talk July 2015

So for today’s businesses to succeed they need to build their stories with a combination of authenticity and an appreciation of the goals and allegiances of social media communities.  And those goals are myriad, ranging from ideas about LGBT awareness to body-shaming, factory-farming to fake news, modern slavery to mindfulness, keep-fit to clean eating.

Today’s consumer, more than ever, thinks “what I buy tells the world who I am.”  And who I am is increasingly – for Millennials and Boomers alike – a person who stands for something.  So understanding what people believe in and authentically embracing that at the heart of your story is key to business success.

Those that have combined an understanding of social media culture with cracking story-telling boast global market dominance – and a corresponding increase in the value of the company!

Emma Swain, Creative Consultant and former Strategy Director, BBC TV Digital Transformation

Fidelio Conclusion

Engaging with today’s consumers and stakeholders clearly requires rapidly evolving skills. In order to ensure long-term success, businesses are increasingly embracing  a new model of building and developing their brand through storytelling, connecting through digital platforms to customers and stakeholders alike. This capability is no longer optional and Boards should care and question whether their companies have the skills needed to connect.

The rate of technological innovation is fast-paced. Brands are able to access broad, previously untapped audiences on a global scale. Businesses that succeed in connecting will be those which are innovative and adaptable, and able to attract fresh skills and experience, and the impact will be seen in their valuation.

As such Fidelio ensures clients have the digital skill sets and capability at Board and executive level to successfully engage with the audience that matters. Surely this is the story of successful business.

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