Don’t just create a brand positioning, create a brand story

ST002 Figure 2.2 by Rosenfeld Media, Flickr

The advent of digital media and changes in consumer expectations mean that brands now have to think in terms of the story they want to tell rather than just positioning themselves.  This post examines the shift from positioning to story, provides an overview of brand storytelling, and exemplifies this through looking at how the Scotch whiskey Glenmorangie goes about communicating its brand story.

A brief history of brand positioning

The definition of brand positioning typically goes something like this: “The activity of creating a brand offer in such a manner that it occupies a distinctive place and value in the target customer’s mind relative to its competitors”.

Popularised in the 1980s by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their book Positioning – The Battle for Your Mind, the concept has become a standard component of the marketer’s toolkit.  Anyone that has undertaken a marketing course has at least a basic understanding of it.  Most of today’s marketing savvy consumers have heard of it.

The concept was actually first introduced by Trout in 1969, and was in fact being employed intuitively by many advertisers prior to it being defined and labelled.  But what Ries and Trout highlighted was that in an overcommunicated world a brand needed to peg itself to something so as to be able to slot easily into people’s minds.

Also shaping their thinking were the dominant communication vehicles of that time.  That ‘something’ had to be concise enough to be conveyed in a 30 second television commercial or a full-page print ad.

The drivers of change

Bryant Park, late Apr 2009 - 21 by Ed Yourdon, Flickr

Move ahead 30 years and ‘overcommunication’ has gone to an entirely different level.  Brands now have dozens of channels and touchpoints with which to reach consumers.  Consumer perceptions of brands are being built through small and big pieces of information, and multiple levels of interaction, both online and in the real world.  In some cases a brand’s website can be more important to it than a multi-million dollar advertising campaign.  In other cases how it expresses itself through its packaging or product labelling could be the critical factor.

Ironically, even as the amount of information has exploded, many consumers are spending more time finding out about what they’re buying.  We are now in an era of “considered consumption”. People are thinking more about what they consume and why, the consequences of their decisions, what constitutes real value and the opinions of others.

Brands absolutely still need to position themselves in this new environment.  But a brand’s positioning is now more like an invitation to explore it further than a deal clincher.  Or it provides a foundation for building on rather than being the key to the house.  In itself it doesn’t close the sale, develop equity or generate customer loyalty.

Brand stories

What brands now need to create are brand stories.  Multi-faceted and engaging narratives that may encompass such things as what they offer, what they do, how they do it, why they do it, where they’ve come from and where they’re going, and what they believe in and value.  What is appropriate will depend on the specifics of a brand and the category it operates in.  But what is clear is that every brand needs to spell out what its story is so as to be able to effectively manage its communications across all the points of contact it has with potential and existing customers.

In most cases a brand’s story won’t be told in its entirety in one piece of communication.  Even on a website it will be woven through various pages and sections rather than stated explicitly on a single page.  Typically different aspects of it will be told in different places (and occasionally at different times) – in-store, on pack, through advertising, via various social media channels, websites and other digital assets, sponsorships, catalogues, by interactions with sales and customer service staff, product descriptions, promotions, and so on.  In this way customers discover the story for themselves and come to own it.

Of course not all brands have the resources or opportunity to have multiple touchpoints (though digital channels have made this affordable, if not imperative, for most).  In some cases the brand story will be told, at least in summary form, in one place.  For instance, winemakers have by necessity had to become particularly adept at condensing their story onto the back label of their bottles.

A brand story example: Glenmorangie

Like winemakers, distillers of Scottish single malt whisky have had to master telling their stories on their bottles.  And like wine consumers, whisky buyers have to choose from a plethora of ostensibly ‘me too’ brands.

For a premium category there are an unusually large number of players, with some 100 brands available.  The majority of these position themselves on common themes – heritage, craftsmanship, purity, taste, discernment, manliness.  Many have similar names, adding to the challenge of differentiation.  For instance, there are over 20 ‘Glen’ somethings, such as Glenallchie, Glenburgie, Glendullan, Glendronach, Glenglassaugh, Glengoyne, Glenkinchie and Glenrothes.

Over the years the best selling single malt whiskey In Scotland has consistently been Glenmorangie, where it has headed the better known globally Glenfiddich and Glenlivet brands.

Glenmorangie 10 Years Old

Its flagship 10 years old whiskey comes packaged in a canister with the following story on its back.

“Here in the far north of Scotland, near the ancient Royal Burgh of Tain, lies Glenmorangie, ‘The Glen of Tranquillity’ where malt whisky has been distilled since before 1700.  The distillery has an air of timelessness; the methods and craft we employ today differ little from those of our forbears.

We use the same fine barley, locally grown in Ross-shire and lightly peated during malting. Our water rises in the Tarlogie Springs close to the distillery, and having filtered through lime and sandstone for half a century, is unusually hard and rich in minerals.

Glenmorangie’s elegant swan-neck stills are the tallest in the Highlands, so only the lightest and purest of vapours can ascend and condense.  And our whisky is matured for ten years in selected casks of American mountain oak which allow the natural flavour of Glenmorangie to fully develop. Our casks rest in low stone-built buildings with earthen floors, permeated by fresh sea-air, a gentle local climate ensuring a steady path to full maturity.

The result is a malt whisky of unique character and subtlety, elegant and delicately scented. We are proud of Glenmorangie and confident of the pleasure it will give you”.

The front label simply provides the factual product information plus the statement “Handcrafted by the Sixteen Men of Tain”, which is repeated on the top and bottom rim of the canister.  This statement, presented without further explanation, serves to induce curiosity and encourages its customers to find out more.

Overall these words paint a succinct and enticing picture of the brand.  Category themes like ‘heritage’ and ‘craftsmanship’ are employed, but the specific details of Glenmorangie’s claim on them collectively set the brand apart.  The brand’s origins and values, and product features and benefits, are all proudly incorporated into the telling.

Glenmorangie’s website reveals more of the story by expanding on each point mentioned on the back label and by providing additional facts and anecdotes.

One section of the site is actually labelled ‘Our Stories’, and uses various storytelling techniques – including animated graphics and video – to bring the brand to life.  Within this section visitors can discover for themselves what lies behind the intriguing pack reference to “the Sixteen Men of Tain”; being its tradition of only ever having a select group of 16 craftsmen entrusted with the secrets of the distillery and who pass this knowledge down from generation to generation.

May the best story win

To a degree brands have always told stories.  Some see that a brand is by definition a story.  But, as outlined, the need to manage multiple communications channels, and to connect with the ‘considered consumer’, means going beyond positioning to creating a brand story is now an imperative for most brands.

Adding further impetus to this is the reality that in many categories there are few tangible points of difference between the products or services on offer.   Parity in actual product performance is now the norm.

In today’s marketplace the businesses that tell the best stories are those that will win.

Business leaders should not just be asking “What is the ‘one thing’ that makes our brand different?” but as importantly “What story are we telling now?”, “What are our competitors’ stories?”, “What story could we be telling to connect us to new and existing customers?”.

Image Credits: Tim Morgan, Rosenfeld Media, Ed Yourdon, The Glenmorangie Company

:Thinkshots | Thinkshot posts are observations and ideas relating to current issues and trends impacting the future of brands, marketing and marketing communications.

Our blog aims to provide thoughts and insights into brand strategy, brand management and brand building for navigating a changing world.

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