Why do some brands succeed where others cannot, even on a level playing field?  How is it some brands resonate with consumers year after year after year?What makes one brand risk-averse when another seems to thrive on it? While a brand’s success has many contributing factors, the answers to these questions can often be found in the content approach: compelling brand stories supported with honest and consistent content.

In this article, we’ll examine the crucial role honesty, both internal and external, plays in engagement with your brand. We’ll examine how compelling stories keep customers engaged. And we’ll look at why consistency is essential across all consumer touch points. When we understand how these critical elements—honesty, storytelling, and consistency–impact a brand’s success, we are much better equipped to meet our challenges and surpass our goals.

Take a Cue from CNN

I spent much of my career at Turner Broadcasting, working on the CNN brands. I was not a journalist; I was part of the Ad Sales team. The Ad Sales Marketing department of a major news network is an odd place to sit. But, being a marketer for an international content creator provides unique insight into the importance of storytelling to brand development.

At CNN, I first observed the intersection of honest, compelling, and consistent storytelling. For an organization that creates content based on daily events, the most crucial characteristic of that content is that it’s factual.  Nothing in the brand’s construct nor the network’s business model would have mattered had CNN not been honest about its mission, its purpose, and the development of its content. Truth is the product.  Professionally trained journalists have strict processes that they are taught, and then held to, when creating stories.  Sources are verified; facts are checked. Content accuracy, even down to the spelling and grammar, matters.  Punctuation counts.  Deadlines are met.  And when mistakes happen, corrections are made or a retraction is issued.  At CNN, quality, honest content made careers and solidified CNN’s brand reputation.

In the early days, consistency at CNN was probably lacking. However, with the advent of digital distribution networks on multiple devices, its importance became clear.   The visual, the written, the user experience, the cross promotion, the point of view all quickly became the same on every screen.  Additionally, CNN quickly established a reputation as the go-to network for breaking news. Regardless of when or where a story broke, CNN was there. The network consistently provided accurate, dependable reporting for the life of the story—whenever and wherever viewers consumed news.  The ability to over and over again, on any platform, in the same expected manner, be first in telling a story, established consistency as another of the main pillars of the brand.

Over time, this approach storytelling defined the network and helped make CNN one of the most respected brands in world.  So what does this mean for you? Let’s take a closer look at honesty.

Honesty IS a Brand’s Best Policy: Cooking at The New York Times

For any brand, product manufacturer or service-based company, honesty, first and foremost, is key to long-term success. It establishes consumer credibility and provides a foundation upon which to build all future content. Granted, this type of brand honesty is inherent to a news organization.  So, how does a manufacturing company go about realizing “brand honesty?” And how does honesty apply to consumer brands and business-to-business sales organizations?

Brand honesty begins with the non-flinching, intensive process of introspection. A company’s leadership must ask and answer tough questions. Questions such as: What is our business?  What is the product or service we sell? Who are our customers? What is our value to them?  How are we perceived by customers as well as competition? Who are our competitors?  Where are they succeeding and/or failing?  How is our product different?  What are our strengths?  What are our weaknesses? And what are our values and goals as an organization? When these questions (and the inevitable deeper-dive, follow-on questions) have been honestly answered, a clearer sense of purpose begins to emerge and should inform all content development and delivery.

To illustrate how honest introspection can strengthen a brand, let’s look at the New York Times food section.  It has evolved from primarily restaurant news and reviews to the multi-media, Cooking sub-brand that we see today.   Cooking includes not only bread-and-butter (pardon the pun) restaurant profiles, but also in-depth storytelling on where our food comes from, what effect its development and harvest have on societies, and compelling insight into the cultural significance of eating.  Also included are relevant recipes and video instruction on how to prepare them.  When I asked Sam Sifton, the Times’ Food Editor, how this transformation came about, he shared this perspective:

“The idea was to apply exactly the same rigor and commitment to truth that we use in all our reporting to the subject of food and home cooking…then to make that reporting accessible to all. Come for the coverage of Syria or Trump, stay for the roast chicken and barbecued ribs!”

This brand honesty or knowing what’s in your DNA (the New York Times, the standard of American journalism) plus effective content creation based on that insight, I would argue, has created one of the best “brands” in the entire food + lifestyle journalism category, NYT’s Cooking.

So honesty will take you far, but it isn’t all you need. Let’s take a closer look at storytelling.

Storytelling: Spinning the Good Yarn with Patagonia

So, you have a strong foundation in honesty. The rest is a piece of cake, right?  Not so fast.   All we’ve done is be honest about who we are and what we do.   What next?  Great storytelling!   All the honesty in the world won’t matter if the story you tell is boring; no one is going to pay attention. Compelling content, whether it is something as simple and seemingly obvious as a tagline or Instagram post, is what piques interest in a company.  It’s a key element in your continuing relationship with the consumer, whomever it may be.  And as the old adage says, you’ll never have a second chance to make a first impression.

As we all know, content, from a brand’s logo to its thickest brochure to employee onboarding, should be interesting.  Regardless of the medium, content should pull the audience in and hold their attention.

Take, for example, Patagonia, the outdoor apparel manufacturer.  Built on a base of honesty, this company sells 300-dollar raincoats, 40-dollar ball caps and fleece jackets made out of recycled plastic bottles.  Open the catalog or click on the website, and the exceptional, often jaw-dropping photography will captivate you. Skim the other content ranging from articles to product descriptions, and don’t be surprised if you’re engaged by stories that convey the company’s passion for sustainability as well as its customers’ love of the outdoors. You want to pull on their coats, go outside and experience these amazing stories.  The product descriptions are no-nonsense and provide purchase pros and cons, allowing the consumer to make crucial decisions, much like that downhill skier or sheer-face rock climber during their excursions.  Patagonia’s approach certainly has not hindered its success. Patagonia controls 9% of the $10 billion outdoor apparel sector.

You can weave storytelling into your brand, as well. But, your storytelling will fall short without consistency.

Consistency: Say it Again, Red Bull

Consistency across all touch points is essential for successful content strategy.  Content must be useful, useable, impactful and engaging each and every time the consumer interacts with it.  The easiest and most relevant way I can illustrate the value of consistency is the example good parents set for their children.  Parents who are consistent in the kind of attention they give their children reap the rewards, positive and negative.  For organizations, consistent content across all media and to all constituents (investors, customers, employees, contractors, vendors) sets expectations and ultimately establishes trust.

A prime example of consistency in all touchpoints is the incredible job Red Bull does tying the physical rush of its sugar and caffeine products to the emotional rush one gets from its content. Red Bull is essentially one product, an energy drink. There are a small number of variations to the drink (sugar free, zero sugar, limited edition flavor) but it’s basically a canned beverage designed to give the consumer a boost, or “wings” as the company calls. Pretty basic stuff.

Now, consider the content that surrounds the product. From a website chock full of articles, features, updates and information, to a worldwide slate of music, art, fashion, dance and urban culture-related events, to sponsorship of extreme sports and their standout athletes to a television network dedicated to highlighting all of these things, Red Bull has created an unending supply of content that consumers can see, hear, touch, smell and taste.  And the common denominator? All of this content is built on the adrenaline rush of physical activity, daring and achievement. It is astounding how Red Bull has successfully created (and co-opted) this staggering volume of “rush-inducing” content.  And every bit of it is consistent with the exhilarating brand promise of “giving wings to people and ideas.”

We’re As Good As Our Word(s)

Great brands such as CNN, The New York Times, Patagonia and Red Bull did not reach the top of their verticals by chance. They reached the top with successful storytelling grounded in honesty and executed with consistency around theme and across touchpoints with their audiences or customers. Take inspiration from their examples to create stories and, ultimately, a brand that is not only effective but also beloved.

The Author

John Brown is founder and Principal at StoryWorks, LLC, an Atlanta-based brand strategy, content development and copywriting agency.  

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