Please tell me most of us cringe — even if it’s just a little bit — when we think of brands herding humanity through the sales funnel. I understand commonplace visuals are helpful toward explaining concepts; and technically, a funnel is a good enough description for the progressive nature of acquiring customers. Imagine with me for a moment, that there’s more to the funnel. Let’s reimagine the funnel as part of an hourglass, filled with the sands of our talents, personalities, challenges, solutions and finances brought together during this point in time.
Hopeful that our days and experiences are far from one and done, we strive to cherish experiences, learn from failure and recognize the joy of caring beyond ourselves. Successful brands respect this by building a brand-customer relationship that is cyclical and full of life. They understand we’re in this together.
Like a prequel to a movie, the long-viewed sales funnel makes more sense when we understand its brand development foundation, as well. Long before activating campaigns, we step back to determine what our brands and customers need from one another. These brand development stages inform the strategies we implement in the pursuit of acquiring customers.
Analyzing a brand — through various internal and external viewpoints — to identify functional and emotional benefits and key points of differentiation
Pinpointing audience challenges and joys prior to sequencing audience search and purchase cycle patterns
Selecting optimal marketing channels as shared spaces for brand-customer connections via electronic devices (online and offline), physical locations and natural environments
Defining, pacing, prioritizing and designing communications with a purposeful tone
Each of these stages are guiding frameworks for exploration, empathy, understanding, direction and outreach. By creating space to view the brand through the customer’s perspective, we create greater opportunity for a shared journey that’s built on two-way communication. That’s not to say a brand is without boundaries for marketplace fulfillment. Diligent brand leaders clearly define how they’ll serve, but they also acknowledge how underlying motivations can make or break the brand-customer relationship. This foundation carries through into the delivery of outreach, as defined by the sales funnel.
Activating shared storylines to make a brand known among targeted audience groups
Attracting brand interest among prospective customers, as indicated by their early engagement activity
Walking alongside the prospective customer to provide the most customized information possible, in the most timely and convenient way possible
Completing a sale
Continuing to build the brand-customer relationship by providing ongoing value and encouraging ongoing feedback and analysis
These sales stages require brand teams to reach across organizational silos to facilitate a customer experience that's more relational and less transactional. A Marketing Sherpa report underscores the importance of such brand alignment by revealing 79 percent of marketing leads never convert due to a failure to nurture consumer connections. This is where storyline sprints can create specific communications pathways throughout the sales funnel, from top to bottom. I utilize storyline sprints for my projects so brand departments can see the importance of working cooperatively to minimize disconnects within the funnel. Once a purchase is complete, ideally the ongoing value and feedback measures that are in place turn customers into long-term, repeat customers.
While it’s tempting to skip the analysis of our shortcomings or accomplishments, the valuable information gained from analysis must make it back into the brand foundation and sales stages for refinements. That’s why I believe the brand-customer hourglass more accurately illustrates the brand-customer relationship. It’s a cyclical process, full of engagement. We owe it to ourselves and each other to make the best of this time and space we share, time and time again.
Brand storytelling reminds us there’s more that connects us than separates us. Much of the time, however, our cluttered physical and digital worlds can distract us from these connections. Brand storytelling gives us the opportunity to bring our shared storylines into focus.
The Collins English Dictionary defines the storyline of a book, film or play as its story and the way it develops. I view brand storytelling in a very similar way. When we purposefully explore our shared interests and occupy shared spaces, common ground can genuinely take root as shared storylines. These storylines are there when we’re side by side in the crowd or engaging virtually across an ocean. Our shared storylines reveal how we’re connected — and not alone. Maybe we share a mutual love for eating warm chocolate cake, running in nature, driving a high-performance vehicle or speaking up for the underdog. We might even share a mutual struggle.
Brand storytelling is a purposeful storyline (narrative) communicated by brands, designed to strengthen customer relationships, engagement and loyalty.
Science confirms we're drawn to stories. Marketing Land, tracked research indicating storytelling immersion increases oxytocin, the neurotransmitter that builds empathy and encourages prosocial behavior. Further research from the Association for Psychological Science suggests stories are more memorable than mere facts because of this storytelling immersion. Combine that with the often cited work of American psychologist Jerome Bruner, who noted storytelling is at least 20 times more memorable than facts. Although it's easier to connect with fellow human beings over sheer data, believable data still plays a vital role in forming connections.
When brand storytelling is real, truthful and relatable, it creates trust. That trust can invite interest, engagement and the purchase of your product or service. Like with any relationship, trust must be earned and respected by intentionally considering the other person’s needs.
Get to know your customer’s joys and challenges in order to better speak to their needs. You can achieve this through many feedback tools such as online surveys, focus groups, less formal events and social media posts. Craft your content around both the emotional and functional benefits your brand brings to the table, while conveying a call to action. Your brand stories might reflect empathy, inspiration or offer clear solutions that brighten a customer’s day. Or, your stories may center around concrete elements, like faster service times within your industry.
While storytelling certainly can go big with grand campaigns and celebrities, the Digital Marketing Institute notes 60% of Generation Z prefers to see everyday people in brand promotions. Featuring everyday customers or relatable heroes through influencer marketing provides a more genuine social proof while activating that immersive storytelling experience. Today’s social media micro-influencers are often people with a modest following, who are actively engaging those followers around one or more shared storylines.
Finding the shared storylines and best marketing channels for your brand begins with a holistic approach that bridges brand-customer relationships with a primary source of your brand strengths … your employees. Brand storytelling should not live with marketing alone. As part of a customer-driven mindset, it must be fostered by all departments within your company. Content with depth reflects the minds and lives of employees and customers, because they connect all along the customer experience path.
Just as people grow, building new experiences and interests over time, brands will do the same. Staying true to the core of who you are as a brand means honoring your employees and customers while navigating outside elements. This process doesn’t have to keep your head spinning though. Stick with your strengths. Instead of telling a lot of big stories, make brand storytelling a big part of how you connect with customers.