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Warning: These five risks could damage your brand story

Warning: These five risks could damage your brand story
Question: What do Maria Sharapova, Iain Duncan Smith and the Coen Brothers movie, 'Hail, Caesar!' have in common? (And what does this have to do with marketing communications anyway?)

Answer: They've all had trouble providing a story that holds up. (And - wait and see).

On March 8, the Russian tennis star called a press conference to admit she had failed a drugs test.  It was clear that much thought had gone into presenting this as a voluntary revelation from a somber, plainspeaking and rueful figure a million miles away from the shrieking baseliner who battled her way to five Grand Slam titles.

But within hours, sceptics were querying why a supreme athlete, famous for grinding down her opponents in physically and mentally exhausting rallies, would in any case need to take for almost 10 years Meldonium, a performance-enhancing drug originally designed to treat people with diabetes and heart conditions, which is produced in Latvia and not even approved for use in the US, where Sharapova lives.

Or how the world's highest-paid female sports celebrity, who has a reputation for obssessive self-discipline, would fail to open official email attachments warning the drug was about to be placed on a banned list.

The player will plea for mitigating circumstances at her hearing, but public opinion and sponsors seem to have moved on.

The narrative surrounding the Cabinet resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith's (IDS) collapsed even faster. The publicly-released resignation letter from IDS, blaming his exit on disagreement over proposed changes to disability benefits, was swiftly undermined by the Prime Minister's reply which claimed the changes had been agreed by the DWP, No 10 and the Treasury (the proposals were later axed). Observers believe a longstanding fallout with the Chancellor George Osborne and a rancorous atmosphere created by the EU referendum were more likely to have led IDS to jump before he was pushed.

And if you're thinking of seeing 'Hail, Caesar!', save your money and watch the trailer instead. It has the best bits, and won't leave you exiting the cinema wondering how the creators of the classic 'Fargo' could this time have made a kidnap comedy in which the only mystery is whether or not the film's reputedly funny scenes are the real hostage being held back until the release of a Director's Cut.

If you're a marketer, none of this may appear very relevant.

When marketers talk about brand 'storytelling' they tend to discuss public-facing pieces of content created for advertising or other communiations disciplines to move, inform or entertain consumers in ways that almost certainly exaggerate the public's interest and attention levels. They debate how such stories communicate the brand's 'purpose', how likely audiences are to share them, and whether they would make people more interested in finding out 'what's next?' from the brand.  (See here for a list of UK brands, ranked by such criteria).

However, there is another type of brand storytelling.This involves the stories used to explain and justify marketing investments and strategies both internally within the brand's organisation, and externally to investors, third party media, awards juries and other audiences deemed worth impressing. In those contexts, the audiences are not just paying attention to the story details; they are actively looking for holes and weaknesses. 

For this type of brand story, the advantages of having a narrative that is easily grasped, accurate, coherent, and that cannot be quickly discredited or rendered obsolete should be obvious.

So, to avoid repeating the experience of a Sharapova or an IDS, what questions can be used to 'stress test' a brand story? 

1. Does it fit easily with your history?

Some brand marketers love the intellectual and practical challenge of a re-positioning, and arguably the increased range of communication formats available to contemporary marketers encourages them to experiment with new activities and theories. But when these activities are packaged into a narrative for explanation and evaluation, there is a risk that the explanation will jar too much with back stories to be credible. The story may need some extra transitional chapters to ensure audiences can make the journey. You could argue that Maria Sharapova has this problem: her revelation of long-term health problems and absent mindedness do not sit easily with her established persona of a hyper-focused, Amazonian sporting icon.

2. Can it be contradicted by a credible source?

One of the most admired comms-led innovations of recent years is the development of high-visibility 'Life Paint' by Volvo and Grey to increase the road safety of cyclists. 

As time has progressed, however, reviewers from respected sources such as The Guardian and Bike Radar have questioned whether the product lives up to its promises.  If those doubts spread, it would be hard to see how this product story would survive.

3. Has your own behaviour undermined the story?

Spare a thought here for Volkswagen, a brand owner whose long-term investment in effective, often highly creative stories has been well documented in IPA Effectiveness Awards-winning papers. However, the damage from the company's emissions cheating scandal is still being totted up, with legal action in the US alleging systematic deception of consumers because of the contradiction between the brand's 'green' advertising claims and the realities of its vehicles' emissions.

4. Does your story still have leadership support?

You could call this the 'IDS' flaw: the Work and Pensions Secretary lost his one-time allies at the head of the government. As a result, not only were his bosses able to rebut his arguments quickly and credibly - almost by return of ministerial post - but, more importantly, they were willing to go public with their views. Unfair though it may be, given the frequency of change at the top of some organisations, marketers need to be sensitive to any changes, or even signals of change, from the boardroom, and may have to re-draft their stories accordingly.

5.  Is your story less credible than that of competitors?

Stories are Darwinian: the best ones tend to adapt to environment and circumstances. Few sectors require as much adaptation as supermarket retailing. Try reading the Tesco brand story as set out in the 2000 case study, Every little helps, swiftly followed by the 2012 Aldi 'Like brands' case and its 2014 follow-up, 'Share and Save, to see how a promise that a supermarket will help save money in myriad, different ways was rendered less credible by a budget discounter's brutally blunt concentration on low pricing.

By contrast, although it is not the brand's main promise today, Sainsbury's 'Try Something New' still seems a relevant story for a retailer brand, with its narrative logic that by encouraging consumers to experiment with new choices and make a small number of regular, incremental purchases, a business can grow its sales by a significant amount over time.

With the awards season highlights, starting with the Cannes Lions and culminating in the IPA Effectiveness Awards (entry deadline April 15th), drawing near, it will interesting to see how many of the most discussed campaigns of the last 12 months can offer stories that comfortably answer all five of the questions listed above.

There is a reason why even old IPA Effectiveness cases such as  'It's a Skoda. Honest' (2002) or Stella Artois's Reassuringly profitable (2000) continue to be cited. It is not so much because they contain stories that are engaging or intriguing - though they do. It's because, as stories, they seem credible, internally logical and consistent documents from a specific context and moment in time, that could be adapted and reinterpreted into stories for today.

Whether the context is a press conference, a resignation letter, a Hollywood movie or an effecttiveness case study, it still pays to have a story that holds up.

Last updated 30/03/2016

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