Build Brand Through Authentic Stories

Sustainable Brands 09: Triple Pundit’s Ryan Mickle Offers Top Brand Stories
sustainable brands 2009By some estimates the average American encounters up to 3000 brand and advertising messages per day, not to mention the stack of emails, text messages, phone calls, Facebook pokes, and Tweets. With this daily barrage of data, how do we filter out and choose the relevant bits, the ones we care to interact with? More and more this filter is about trust, relationship and authenticity, according to Triple Pundit’s Ryan Mickle, in his presentation at the recent Sustainable Brands 09 conference.
What does this mean for brand building and telling great brand stories? Relationship-powered filters mean companies must connect with their customers through honest and authentic communication in order to stand out from the data overload, and this should be the basis for the stories that businesses tell. Here is a sample of Ryan’s picks for some successful (and some not so successful) brand builders and the lessons they can teach us.

Know Your Customer
Every brand builder knows this basic premise of marketing, but may not know how to fully utilize this knowledge to connect with their customers. Tesla Motors, the California-based electric car company, understood their target market early on, that is: techies with money. Tesla understood what types of stories would appeal to this audience. So instead of spending time and money on developing fancy brochures, they told their story in pictures and videos that communicated their brand story: fun, fast and high tech.
Tesla also told their story through bloggers who are trusted resources for this demographic. They offered test drives to bloggers like Tim Ferriss (The Four Hour Work Week) and Brian Lam (Gizmodo, the Gadget Blog) to tell the Tesla story for them. Ferriss and Lam both gushed over the car on their blogs (“sounds like a fighter jet and accelerates like a drag motorcycle on steroids”) and offered plenty of photos and YouTube videos.

Engage Your Customer
We can learn more than one important lesson from TerraCycle, the company that started out making worm poop fertilizer and now makes a number of consumer items including tote bags from recycled plastic bags, candy wrappers, and drink pouch containers (any foiled lined wrappers will work). First, they score high on the coolness factor. What a great story, addressing this awful loss of resources, diverting waste from the landfill and converting it into useful products!
TerraCycle also empowers their customers to participate in their eco-capitalist vision. They offer a “brigade” program where any individual or organization can sign up to collect used packaging and send them to TerraCycle. The company’s partners like Nabisco, CapriSun, and Kashi (all those companies who make the packaging) will then contribute a few pennies to charity for each returned container. TerraCycle has formed a two-way, mutually beneficial relationship with its customers, and all for a good cause: keeping thousands of pounds of used packaging out of the landfills.
Use Every Interaction to Delight Your Customer
Zappos, the popular online shoe retailer has created a company culture that’s all about building personal rapport with customers. This culture starts at the top with CEO Tony Hsieh and is the primary focus of every employee. Tony Hsieh has already formed over 800,000 Twitter relationships (@Zappos), where he Tweets on mostly personal topics rather than pitching Zappos advertisements. In fact, the company spends very little on advertising choosing instead to spend this money on their customers by offering free shipping, free 365 day returns, and 24/7 customer service. Zappos understands another basic marketing mantra: a happy customer is your best advertising. We all tend to trust the stories of satisfied shopping told by our friends.
Know Your Skeletons
Starbucks recently learned the hard way that social media can be a double-edged sword. They launched a huge advertising campaign with a significant social media component. They encouraged customers to take pictures of themselves in front of the Starbucks’ billboards and post the photos on Twitter using the #starbucks tag. Activists eager to unionize Starbucks seized on the marketing initiative and hijacked the Twitter locations, posting photos accusing Starbucks of unfair labor practices. Whoops! Starbucks stopped the campaign shortly thereafter.
When you use social media to let your audience do the marketing for you, you may not get the results you hoped for. Rather than doing all the talking, make sure you are listening to all your stakeholders, particularly your employees, and make sure you are aware of your vulnerabilities.

Do More than Just Create Attention

Telling great brand stories takes more than just getting your customers’ attention. And it’s not just about having the coolest website, or the most Twitter followers, or the biggest wiki. Social Media is just a means, not an end in itself. You can have all the social media whizz bang you want, but unless you have a good story to tell that connects with your customers, it won’t do you much good.
For more examples of top brand stories and the tools that got them there, you can view Ryan’s slides on Slideshare.

Jim Witkin is a writer and researcher based in Silicon Valley focused on business, technology and the environment. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Guardian newspapers on topics that include: sustainable business practices, clean tech, the environment and next generation transportation technologies. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. Contact him at

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