The demise of the brand: why technology will usher in a new era of storytelling

The rise of the social web is making storytelling even more important, writes Robert Mighall, former Oxford fellow in English literature and one-time editor of the Penguin Classics series.

The corporate brand is back, as social media and responsibility force companies to shift attention from their products to themselves as never before. But is ‘branding’ best suited for the task or these times?

Storytelling has recently emerged as an alternative, slipping stealthily into brand territory and performing many of its functions. Practitioners now talk about "getting the story straight", where they once spoke of "brand".

And when the likes of Coca-Cola announces that it is evolving from a manager of brands to a "sharer of stories", you know something big is up. But what? And where does this leave what is supposedly a company’s prize asset, to be experienced everywhere, and "lived" by every employee?

Coke’s well-publicised change of heart offers some clues. Coca-Cola realised it generated only 10% of the online content about the company and its brands. So it adopted a more co-creative approach to stay in the conversation and have some say in the meaning of its brand.

Universal currency

Storytelling – let’s call it word-of-mouth here – is the universal human currency, now given unprecedented circulation and impact through the social web. And so sharing stories as much as drinks is what Coke now claims to be about, teaching the world to sing its songs more inclusively than the "broadcast" and "branding" ethos of old. The 2012 re-launch of its corporate website as an online magazine called Journey signalled its commitment to brand storytelling.

But storytelling has impact and implications beyond the high-profile gestures and content marketing initiatives of global giants. The story coup has so far been bloodless, with practitioners seemingly happy to use 'story' and 'brand' almost interchangeably when there’s communication work to be done.

A brand’s story helps the company stand apart by explaining what it stands for and why, and providing a consistent thread to the messages and experiences it delivers. Just like a brand, in fact, when used to mean more than logos, colours, typefaces and imagery - the mere tangible assets of corporate identity. Which begs the question: do we still need both concepts? If brand and story continue to coexist and collaborate, we need to clarify some roles and responsibilities, and acknowledge some uncomfortable truths.

Storytelling is the universal human currency, now given unprecedented circulation and impact through the social web.

Branding, despite the more ambitious claims of its advocates, still carries associations of the stamping, fixing, controlling impulse of its inception. Hatched in the realm of ideas, brands are largely abstractions, devised by professionals and done to consumers.

Brand owners seek to control their creations, even when the media for their meanings are the hearts, minds and souls of others; quite a stretch for something originally devised for identifying livestock, and especially hubristic when applied to branding the allegiances of employees who know a little too much about the company to "live" these imposed abstractions with much conviction.

Story, on the other hand, is practised by every culture on the planet nearly every waking (and dreaming) hour of the day. While no one really "lives" a brand, our lives are given shape and meaning by stories, making them far easier to live by. And so internal communications is just one area where story is reaching places branding failed to conquer.

Internal/external? Such distinctions are increasingly being eroded in our connected clamorous world - along with creators/consumers and authors/audiences - giving the ancient lore of storytelling a vital new currency, and questioning the role of that relative upstart brand.

Word of mouth networks

Brands emerged when industrialisation and urbanisation transformed the face of commerce, meaning nobody knew who or what to trust when they bought. Technology is now making our world a village again, as people rely on word of mouth networks far more than broadcast messages. Story is newly relevant because companies need to explain themselves better. If they don’t, others will - with greater visibility and volume.

As long as there is competition brands will serve a purpose. Yet the scope and scale of their ambitions may have to be modified, as storytelling continues to triumph as a connector of people and a conveyor of meaning. With eons of practice and human psychology on its side, this is only understandable. 

Discussion

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Brand Republic Jobs

subscribe now

Latest

Center Parcs ad banned for encouraging parents to take kids out of school
Coca-Cola, Cadbury and Amazon named top brands for targeting youth market
Leaked document shows Nokia to be rebranded as Microsoft Mobile
Nike lays-off hardware staff in move that casts doubt on future of FuelBand
Greenpeace says save the bees or humans will die
What brands need to know about changes to VAT and online downloads in 2015
Jimmy Savile victims urged to claim compensation in new ad campaign
UKIP launches biggest  ad campaign and stirs up 'racist' accusations
Apple boss Tim Cook provides voiceover on ad touting firm's renewed green commitments
John Lewis walks consumers through its history to celebrate 150 years of business
Waitrose boosts content strategy with 'Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose' C4 tie-up
Hottest virals: Cute puppies star in Pedigree ad, plus Idris Elba and Fruyo
Amnesty International burns candles to illuminate new hope
Toyota achieves the impossible by calming angry Roman drivers
Tom of Finland's 'homoerotic' drawings made into stamps
YouTube reveals user habits to appeal to 'older' marketers
Ex-M&S marketing chief Steven Sharp consulting at WPP
Wolff Olins reveals new CEO after Apple poaches Karl Heiselman
Glasgow offers £30,000 prize to best digital idea for 2014 Commonwealth Games
Google's revenues surge but shares drop as it grapples with transition to mobile
Facebook beats Twitter to most 'marketing friendly' social media site crown, says DMA
Fableists believe children like Finn should be outdoors enjoying life
Homebase, Baileys and Camelot join the line-up at Media360
MasterCard renews Rugby World Cup sponsorship to push cashless message
Lynx unleashes £9m 'Peace invasion' campaign
Social Brands 100 Youth: Pizza Hut most social youth brand in UK
Cheryl Cole is wild and arresting in new L'Oreal work
Morrisons told not to show alcohol ads during YouTube nursery rhymes
O2 head of brand Shadi Halliwell departs after 23 years at company in restructure
Tesco hit by further sales decline as it turns to digital Clubcard and social network