Cynthia Kurtz starts off a recent blog post with a provocative statement: “Telling a story is not always the best way to tell a story.”
There are no green fields in the land of stories; every available spot is occupied and contested. There are no story-free environments. When a new story is launched into the world, the stories it meets do not simply watch as the newcomer descends; they rise to meet it and swarm around it in complex, unpredictable and sometimes baffling ways. If an idealistic metaphor for telling a purposeful story is pulling a lever or pushing a button on a compliant machine, a more realistic metaphor is sending a bee into a hive.
I want to talk about what this means for marketing communications, especially in today’s world of proliferating social technologies.
Marcomm people have always been tasked with creating messages that can inform the public utterances of the company – be they press releases, speeches, interviews, advertisements, etc. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call these things “stories.” Here are some examples of very brief stories that companies have told over the years:
- Budweiser is the King of Beers
- Chevy is the Heartbeat of America
- GE brings good things to life
- Wal-Mart: always the low price
Those are the most public messages, but there are others, not explicitly stated, perhaps, but nurtured and supported by the marcomm folks:
- Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.
- A Mercedes tells people, “I’ve arrived.”
- Cool people shop at Target.
The official messages have always encountered other bees in the hive. Protesters, in some cases unions, and the press have offered counterstories to the company story – although one could argue that the press has often swallowed the company message and regurgitated it whole. (Quick aside – for the longest time I was amazed by how news stories profiling a musical artist would appear just a couple of days before a new album hit stores.) Here are some counterstories you may be familiar with:
- GE’s industrial pollutants have damaged the environment at certain places where they had plants.
- Wal-Mart achieves cheap prices by purchasing goods from overseas factories that exploit their workers.
- GM cars have poor fit and finish and aren’t fun to drive.
By and large, though, the hive was pretty empty. Corporate messages were transmitted, and seeped into our consciousness pretty much unaltered. This was because mass public communication was expensive and exclusive.
Now we live in a different world. The hive is buzzing with voices. Communication is cheap and easy. Blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, Yelping, Amazon-reviewing, etc., etc. The counterstories fly fast and furious (read this one contesting an oft-reported statistic that Wal-Mart prices save American families $3,100 per year).
Marketers, it’s time to stop trying to control your message. It’s time to stop believing that if you spend a lot of money buying advertisements, sponsoring sporting events or creating publicity stunts, that people will automatically believe what you say.
Instead, you’re going to have to earn your positive messages. Sell great products, service them well, provide outstanding value, thrill your customers. Listen hard to what they’re saying. The deep values they espouse in the stories they tell are your messages. Feel free to retell those stories in your forums. Look in the negative ones for clues to things you can improve, or markets you simply don’t serve well.
But, most of all, stop thinking you’re in control.
(Photo from direct dish via Flickr Creative Commons)