How to build a better brand with storytelling

I was delighted to be invited to join a panel at the B2B Marketing Festival on 7 June, 2022 alongside some marketers I greatly admire. In preparation, we agreed to jot down thoughts on a couple of questions and mine are below, mostly for my own records, but equally for anyone out there.

What do you consider storytelling to be? 

Storytelling is a way of saying something you want to say but using narrative, instead of just saying it straight. When something is shared with us as a story – with a beginning, an end, and a protagonist – there is a better chance it will stay with us. Stories are memorable; they offer more but never less than fact. We sense there is something universal within them, which draws us in. Because they engage us on an emotional level – our empathy kicks in when we hear stories – they are more memorable than when something is simply stated as fact.

How important is storytelling for B2B in your marketing strategy? 

At Mollie, rely on it throughout the lifecycle of communication with our customers. Stories are built into so much of what we do.

Case studies are the obvious example and we use these in the top of funnel stage to show people what Mollie can help them accomplish. Worth noting is how well stories perform in digital marketing. When I was at WooCommerce – this now going back as far as 2018 – we ran an AB test and learnt that in cold prospecting at the top of the funnel, customer stories out-performed our brand ads at WooCommerce 3X on Linkedin. I wrote about that here.

But it doesn’t stop at customer stories. In decisions we make about which events to sponsor, with whom we partner, how we structure our website, what we say on our homepage, how often we email people, what we give our top customers as an end of year gift – there is an effort to build a coherent and compelling story about who we are as a brand and what we stand for. We constantly keep in mind the core principle and power of storytelling, which is that there is more to something than meets the eye.

For example, for year one of Mollie being active in the UK we gave our top customers a gift from Arthouse Unlimited. There was story behind that – something between the lines for those looking: we very intentionally sought out a local British supplier, with their own very special mission and purpose that we endorse, instead of simply buying a luxury gift that had nothing behind it.

We are constantly thinking about the story of Mollie, the story of our customers and the story of the present moment – and how they intersect.

Brand purpose – how is this indicated through storytelling – where you think the role of purpose is? 

I think we’re all agreed brands need to be a bit careful here. Perhaps it goes in cycles, that consumers have waxing then waning then waxing again appetites to hear about a brands purpose. Mostly, just needs to be very genuine. If there is any sense of retrofit – a brand has added purpose to something that started out for a different reason – people will pick this up. Solving a problem is a purpose, I think brands are wise to focus very honestly on what it is they actually do in the world. CSI initiative are great, but need to watch out not to blur those lines.

Across all industries there are economic pressures – how do you ensure that storytelling doesn’t get lost and remains at the heart of what your company is? 

Maybe our stories should get lost a bit when the world goes through things. It requires a lot of sensitivity to know how to carry on with marketing when certain things unfold.

I think the key is to be genuine and remain present to what it going on. As marketers we love to make plans far in advance but the reality is, sometimes the world frequently throws up things that require flexibility. This in the form of opportunity but also cause to draw back or be more quiet for a while. When the war in Ukraine broke out, we had lengthy discussion internally and with our digital agency about what types and levels of advertising felt right for Mollie.

Stories are a great source of solidarity and encouragement. In moments of crisis and difficulty – like the pandemic – the opportunity and call is to support and hold up those to whom we are connected. We do this ad individuals, families and communities – and brands can do this, too. If it becomes self-serving, it is probably some of the most risky and damaging work a brand can do, though.

Specifically in terms of the recession, my advice to marketers would be to hold the line. Don’t bin types of marketing and channels that work when ‘times are good’ but watch them closely and be willing to adjust spend. It all depends to a degree on risk-appetite of your business, your burn rate, and your position in the market (i.e. if you’re a challenger or a leader). Challengers could take the gap to augment brand efforts.

Have the conversations with senior leadership so you know they are on board with the direction you take. Adjust spend temporarily to things that do deliver shorter term value. Be willing to flex. Spend on things you can throttle up and down (for example, fewer tradeshows and more PR).

For those in global businesses, do you think your brand tone of voice should shift market to market? 

I love this question and am going to defer to those with more experience here. But I believe the answer is somewhere in the middle. I am responsible for Mollie in the UK and for customers here, I believe they need to know it is Mollie talking but that there is room for local nuance. We are running a brand campaign in the UK that has a local flavour but stays true and sits comfortably within the brand house.

To end, we were each asked to lift out a top tip about brand building:

The best brand building opportunity of your career will probably be something you didn’t plan for. As well as being methodical and strategic – creating guidelines, building a campaign calendar, having a library of assets – stay nimble, creative and present to what is going on in the world and inside your business, so you can seize moments great – and small. The little pixels are as important as the grand brushstrokes in the overall picture you paint.

Thanks to Caitlin and team for having me.

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