No matter how much effort or money we invest in building our brand, there are two groups of people who ultimately decide how a brand story is shared. Employees and customers are the real brand storytellers. They define the value, reach, and impact of a brand. Success is achieved when we understand the role they play in our company narrative.
As growing companies, we have to put a lot of energy into the creation of our brand story. We produce branded imagery, collateral, and invest in advertising to build awareness. Plus, we train our employees to embody the brand and deliver great customer service. All of this is designed to build a story that customers can come to love and trust.
These efforts serve a couple of critical functions. First, we want customers to associate brand imagery and verbiage with our company. Second, we want to control our brand so that we continue to define and communicate what we do, and why we do it better than the competition. There is a big limitation with this approach: our story is something that reaches far beyond what we alone can define. Because people outside of our control are the primary "brand bearers," our own version of the story isn't the only narrative that counts.
A bigger story than you thought.
Bernadette Jiwa, Author of The Fortune Cookie Principle views it this way: "Your story isn’t just what you tell people, it’s also what they believe about you based on the signals your brand sends. The story is a complete picture made up of facts, feelings, and interpretations, which means that part of your story isn’t even told by you."
Your real brand story might not be the one you thought you were telling.
When your brand enters the marketplace of consumers or businesses users, it causes ripples like a pebble dropped in water. If it has value to those who use or interact with it, then it causes an impact (an experience). That experience is then included and woven into their own story. It may or may not be the story you intended to tell, because it is now written from their point of view and shared on channels that you do not control.
In real life there are no advertisements, only product placements.
The best advertisement for your car brand is the person driving it. Want to make your canoe company famous? Help people have amazing experiences with their family and friends in your canoes. Your brand contributes (or detracts) from the life experience of the consumers and businesses involved with it. A powerful narrative is experienced before it is told. If the story they tell lines up with the brand you hoped to create, then you've empowered your storytellers well.
Your brand story is found in the life or business experience of those who share in it. Because this is true, there are two groups of people who define your brand more than anyone else.
An employee brand storyteller.
The service or product you provide is not delivered by robots (not yet anyway). Employees create, shape, deliver, and provide service around your product. Some of them live out your brand sixty or more hours a week. Employees and vendors are the human touch-point for any customer. They are the living embodiment of your brand. As a result, employees and vendors are the first group who actually experience your brand. And while their employment experience and internal corporate culture may not be the brand story you thought you were telling--they are a primary group of narrators.
Employees not only put their personal spin on the product as it is delivered, they shape the entire environment around the product. And, this happens whether they verbalize their feelings or not.
Consider my coffee shop habit: My stops at the local coffee shop happen at least a couple times each week. I go there for some good coffee, but even more to catch my breath, take a mental break, and freshen up for more effective work. However, what I experience when I visit local coffee shops varies based upon who is working that shift. If the employees are friendly and engaging, then the experience is usually positive. Even before I taste a sip of coffee, I expect to see a smile and hear a greeting. Sometimes, it seems that the baristas aren't pleased to be at work. Even though they don't verbalize what is going on, their personal frustration is communicated in body language and attitude. I don't taste the coffee itself until I turn to walk out. My experience is shaped almost entirely by the behavior and attitude--the brand storytelling--of the employees.
The best we can hope for with employees and vendors is that they become enthusiastic advocates for our brand. They are going to share about our brand within their personal networks (U.S. average social network is 120 per person). What they share will be based upon the experience they are having. Some who are having a negative experience will refrain from public sharing in social networks out of fear or policy, but all will share their experience within their network of friends, family, and co-workers.
> The shortest route to having effective employee advocates is thriving employees. When employees are advocates, they are incredibly powerful. One study showed that 135 Advocates have more influence than 1,000,000 followers. <
The first step in understanding the story that your employees are telling is to listen. By finding and reviewing their social streams you will get a realistic perspective about how they are experiencing the company. Remember, silence is a statement too.
A customer brand story.
Whether you sell to consumers, other businesses, or develop charitable services that you "sell" to donors, these customers are defining your brand story based upon their experience. When they purchase from you, they are taking what you offer and incorporating it into their work or personal life. If they come to enjoy or rely upon it, then it will be shared among their network. The critical moments when they first experience your product/brand and when they make the decision to add it to their repertoire are key opportunities for social network mentions. Capturing positive recommendations, or giving them credit for being vocal about their positive experience, are great ways to add their positive story to your brand.
The downside is also powerful. While they may forget to mention your brand after a positive experience, they are more likely to mention a negative experiences. Whether they offer formal or informal reviews in social commentary, they are incredibly powerful just the same.
Customer experiences tell the real brand story. They either confirm that "It works as advertised!" or reveal that "It is not as it seems."
The dream is that your consumers will fall in love with your product and become advocates for your brand. But, make no mistake: the love comes first. If they are truly engaged, then it is a natural next step to build their advocacy role.
Listening to customers and monitoring brand commentary is no longer optional for businesses that want to grow. The practice of listening and responding has to become as important as the practice of creating and sharing. If you listen carefully, you will begin to hear the real story that is being told about your brand.