To celebrate National Storytelling Week, corporate and brand storytellers Insight Agents commissioned Sussex University’s Innovation Centre to interview senior marketers in the UK retail sector to talk to us about the challenges they face in telling their brand’s stories. In this week-long series of blogs, we’re exploring the major themes to emerge from the research, and give our own advice on how to overcome the barriers to joined-up brand storytelling. Here, Luke Baldwin explores how important it is to tell consistent stories in all channels, online to offline.
Whatever the category, clear and consistent messaging across all channels is vital in providing an authentic, believable and coherent customer experience. With the opportunity to interact online and in-store, consistent narrative is particularly important for retail, a sector we chose to study as a representative – and diverse – part of UK plc.
Mark Blenkinsop, Marketing Director of Hackett, says the process of building consistency in a brand’s story across channels is like developing a West End production. He says: “Theatre is a live experience and months – sometimes years – of rehearsals go into a couple of hours of performance. The same is true of retail today. When a consumer engages with a retail brand, everything has to be perfectly convincing to get them to the till.”
As Mark suggests, the challenge for B2C brands in this space is how to weave consistent narrative across the customer journey. David Rich, Head of Marketing at Robert Dyas, goes further, saying that the words a business uses in its branding play a pivotal role in creating context around each touchpoint, the cornerstone to customers developing trust. He notes: “Words – nuances in phrases – are absolutely paramount; as important as the look of the logo. If you don’t have consistency in your wording, you will never have a coherent platform for communication.”
The manner in which words are used plays an equally important – albeit slightly different – role for B2B brands in retail. Many of those we spoke to expressed concerns about the fact they have less control of their brands at the point of sale when they distribute via third-party retailers.
The Head of Marketing at a major provider of beverages to the hospitality and travel industries told us about the difficulties the company faces in uniting and aligning its brand story. External environments, from restaurants to petrol stations, represent points of sale at which the company has little or no control. Clarity and consistency is therefore key in enabling the brand to resonate with consumers and work in each setting. Our contributor praised how high-street coffee chains – most notably Costa – are now creating vending machines that mimic the authentic experience found in their owned and operated retail shops. The sights, sounds and smells of the original all matter, but so do the visual and verbal cues with which customers are so familiar.
Creating impactful and yet consistent communication demands continual review and iteration. In our age of always-on communication, complacency is costly, and customers can quickly sniff out contradictions – or corporate multiple personality disorder, as we like to call it.
The rise of social as a critical marketing channel has been both a catalyst for and an amplifier of this phenomenon. Your words can be seen by anyone, anywhere, and what you say to one audience can be directly contrasted with what you say to another. Conflicting messages can quickly undermine reputation, as retail brands including Burger King, DKNY and HMV have all experienced to their cost.
Those responsible for brand storytelling are increasingly required to measure impact and act upon what they learn. Marketing teams must often act as publishers, responding rapidly to always-on brand dialogue with customers B2B and consumers B2C.
The demands facing brands as publishers were underlined in our research. Many of those we talked to emphasised the value of using third-party creative and research agencies to originate and review brand language. Stepping back from the day-to-day of the brand allows businesses to stay consistent to the core narrative while bringing fresh ideas to it.
So, by using consistent words and themes, marketers can create loyalty and brand engagement among those they seek to influence through their storytelling. Creating context around touchpoints, aligning brand positioning in third-party environments, and sticking to just one corporate personality, are three important starting points.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.