Five things to look for in a brand storytelling agency

by Mark Jones

Something subtle, yet profound has happened in marketing agency land.

The brand storytelling mantle, once cherished and exclusively worn by advertising agencies, has shifted sideways.

And by brand storytelling, I mean the business of understanding a company, product or brand’s uniqueness and telling other people why it matters. It can be overt in the case of “buy this shiny new thing,” but increasingly it resembles the behaviour of traditional media publishers – brands use content to connect with audiences, not talk exclusively about themselves.

Just like magazine editors, successful brand-sponsored content assets like a blog, video channel, or podcast use what I call the mirror technique. Magazines are a classic example: the cover acts like a mirror, reflecting the hopes, desires and problems of its readers.

Brand storytellers and content marketers who get this right work hard to maintain a trusted relationship with the audience. They seek to avoid betraying their audience with too many sponsored messages.

So that’s where our story begins. To paraphrase Simon Sinek (watch this TED Talk), companies seeking to get this right must start with the why – Why do they exist? What’s their purpose?

This isn’t a binary argument about the effectiveness of advertising versus content marketing. This is a different perspective that looks for common themes, ideas, and storylines.

Brand storytelling takes us deeper and wider across the communications and marketing disciplines. I’m talking about public relations, communications, social media, SEO, digital marketing, experiential marketing, user experience, and – gulp – even sales.

Brand storytelling is weaving its way through every one of these distinct professions. It’s actually been doing that for quite some time, it’s just that now we’re calling it out and giving it context and meaning.

It’s become a subject of fascination for me, not least because I’m chief storyteller at a brand storytelling agency, and we work with marketing professionals. While you’d expect me to say that on our own blog, my story actually runs a bit deeper.

As a journalist, editor and public speaker, I’ve always been attracted to the power of story. It’s hard to describe, but there’s something that resonates when you write something, record something, and publish something that people want to read or watch. Actually getting meaningful feedback is even better.

How do you create content that resonates? Discover more here.

I wrote a story for Mumbrella recently explaining why storytelling unlocks belief moments. When we truly engage in a story, we shift from unbelief to belief. From apathy to empathy. Ignorance to awareness.

We know this to be true in our personal lives when someone takes the time to tell you how they’re really doing, or why they’ve forged a new course in life.

The exciting thing to witness is brands working hard to make storytelling an authentic expression, despite the historical restraints and mindsets that have governed marketing departments. Companies like Coca-Cola, RedBull, Adobe, Telstra, GE, Xero, Commonwealth Bank, ANZ, Marriott, and pioneers like John Deer (some of whom are our clients).

So, what’s next?

If you’re not one of these companies, and you’d like to do something about it, here’s my quick guide to choosing a brand storytelling agency which can help make it happen.

And to point out the elephant in the room, of course we’d love the short answer to be Filtered Media. But realistically I know we won’t be the best fit for every company out there, so consider this a handy guide to finding the perfect fit.

1. The basics: How well does it tell its own story?

The first step on the brand storytelling journey for any company is understanding your genesis story. It’s the story about where it all began. Why you are what you are, how you came into being, and why it matters.

brand storytelling

The Coca-Cola Company’s digital magazine – Coca-Cola Journey.

The genesis story is important because invariably a company’s future is built on its foundation. What are the cultural values, ethos, and mission that brought this thing to life? Have a look at the present-day reality and ask yourself: Are they being true to the genesis story? Are they telling this story effectively on their own media channels? If not, maybe they’re off track. There’s an old messy saying about eating your own dog food.

2. Stepping it up: People first, performance second

Awards are significant indicators of success, but it all starts with an agency’s culture. This is a highly subjective assessment from the client side, but marketing is a deeply personal business and storytelling is even more intimate.

If there’s a cultural mismatch between client and agency, life won’t be fun. Just sayin’.

So ask yourself, do I actually like these people? Who, specifically, will I be working with? It’s not always about the money.

3. If something clicks, then it’s time to look for integration

Brand storytelling—as I’ve suggested—is a broad discipline, yet deeply narrow in focus because great storytelling moves people.

brand storytelling

Red Bull’s media platform – Red Bull Content Pool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So how well does the agency bring together various marketing, PR, social, content and digital skills? If they don’t have everything in house, what’s the strength of their agency and contractor partnerships? Do they have the ability to assemble a team of like-minded storytellers who “get” you?

And of course, how well can they articulate the power of storytelling as it relates to brands, the media, and customer engagement?

4. Ask detailed questions about case studies

What types of brand storytelling work does the agency perform? It’s not too difficult to paint broad brush-strokes, calling your advertising campaign a storytelling program, or renaming an event a storytelling strategy.

A good way into this conversation is to ask the agency about the audience served in the case study. Was the brand or company all-too-cleverly set up as the protagonist, or did they take an audience-centric view? Can you see solid evidence of story arcs and genuine engagement?

I’m likely telling you to suck eggs, but don’t forget calls to action. How did the case study inspire people to take act? Was there a content subscription drive? What social proof or ROI was captured? What digital tools tracked sales leads?

brand storytelling

Adobe’s content publishing platform – CMO.com

Granted many of these things take time, and can be difficult to quantify. But you’re looking for intent, iteration, and a clear focus on the power of story — some have even embraced new jargon to describe this scenario as “storydoing.”

5. Open, or closed minded?

The next tip is perhaps the least obvious. If there’s one thing a brand storytelling agency must be, it’s flexible. Just like stories themselves, your agency must be willing to experiment, apply best practice, and adjust to your way of doing things.

The best analogy is a tree with strong, deep roots and flexible branches. When it gets really windy – code for all the usual dramas in corporate life – they will be able to bend and flex without losing focus.

At Filtered Media, this manifests in a focus on cultivating a growth mindset. In essence, a growth mindset says “I can’t do that, yet.” We’re all constantly learning, being challenged, and pushing the boundaries. Our team writes blog posts for our site, produces our own podcast, and dreams up crazy new ideas for clients. Why? Because that’s how we stretch and learn.

The yet for other brand storytelling agencies or marketing professionals might look slightly different. The question is whether you’re being honest about what you can, and can’t do, and working out how you’ll move towards the yet.

So, what’s your story? Have I left anything off the list? Let me know in the comments section below, and happy hunting for storytellers.

Ready to tell your brand story? We’d love to talk to you.

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