Our marketing agility has been tested as of late.
COVID-19 stripped away core components of business strategies across the globe, forcing us to face the weight of unprecedented change; a new world where business travel and in-person events are replaced by remote work and budget cuts (for both us and our customers). Our strategies were hit with an asteroid. Overnight, our ecosystems changed.
Most of the mass extinction events on earth have been due in some way or another to global warming—with as much as 75% of all life on earth disappearing in a single episode. In a changing environment, you either collapse or adapt.
Nothing is as costly as inaction.
Adaptation vs. the Fear of Change
In nature, adaptation is the process of a species becoming fit to live successfully in its current environment. Nature is very budget-conscious; it can’t afford to simply let life in an ecosystem die out when things change. Biological forces are always working to maximize the return on nature’s investments in living things, so adaptation is a natural reaction to an evolving ecosystem.
Marketing agility means successfully adapting to new (and continuously evolving) environments. It’s the ability to adjust your marketing programs quickly and easily based on often unforeseen circumstances related to your company, your customers, or something else in your ecosystem.
This isn’t a foreign concept to marketers. We’re constantly making changes based on different criteria like timeframe, data, or engagement. But in this case, I’m talking about dealing with seismic shifts: tectonic plates moving inches at a time below the surface that form a richter-breaking earthquake. Having the marketing agility to maneuver massive change not only rescues you in dire situations, but it helps you execute more effectively on day-to-day changes.
Fear of the unknown is very real. When something unprecedented happens, no one wants to just throw away a go-to-market approach that has worked for 24 months straight without another surefire plan in place.
But we must come face-to-face with that fear in times like these, when our families, our companies, and our customers depend on us. We must be brave enough to stop for a moment and take stock of the current situation in order to determine the best course of action moving forward—whether or not that means abandoning programs we spent 18 months trying to build.
You never have to throw anything away, of course, as long as it continues to drive measurable results. But keep a close eye on it, and at the same time proactively research your new environment and test some new things based on what you learn. Utilize adaptive storytelling.
Stories build our identity. They help us understand the world, and they shape the way we see it.
In business, we tell stories with our brand design and messaging, through our events and experiences, via the content and communications we share, in the sales and customer conversations we have, and so much more. We’re telling stories constantly to help people understand why our product or service is relevant to them.
What we say in those stories must be relevant to our audience—not ourselves. The messages you bring to the market must answer the question of why you’re reaching out to that audience (whether on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis) and why they should care. Otherwise, you’re a stranger with a sales pitch or a glazed-over digital ad.
If a brand is the sum of all interactions someone has with your company, then your collective go-to-market message is the conversation you’re having with your audience. Are you talking about you or about them?
Hopefully, your core narrative and messaging framework are, indeed, relevant to your audience. You solve a challenge, satiate a desire, or provide something else valuable enough for people to invest. And that value is something that’s relevant to each and every individual in your audience. It's what ties them all together in a common thread.
“Personalization” is for building relationships with individuals. Relevance is for building relationships with the masses.
PSA: Call Your Customer
Relevance ensures that the way you communicate your value speaks to what matters most to your audience today. Your core message might resonate with your audience on an overall basis, but if it’s not among the, say, three-to-five top things they are thinking about prioritizing within the next week/month/year then they’ll scroll right past you.
In the attention economy—where scarcity exists not in the amount of space we can use to get in front of our buyers, but in the length that we can hold someone’s interest—being relevant means staying close to our buyers and customers. We hold someone’s attention by bringing valuable information as a resource, answering their questions, and helping them make informed decisions.
But the world changes quickly. What mattered to many of us two months ago isn’t even a blip on the radar anymore. And that can happen to our buyers or our customers on any scale (big or small) at any moment, whether or not we know it.
We must always know how to make our core value and messaging hyper-relevant to what matters most to our audience today; this month; this quarter; this year. If we can’t speak to that, then maybe we need to rethink what we’re doing.
This approach, of course, requires staying very close to your audience. Listening, conversing, interviewing your customers as much as possible. As marketers, we spend so much time reading about them and writing for them and talking about them, but we don’t often get the same amount or frequency of face time as some of our other customer-facing counterparts.
This is the part where I tell you, The Marketer, to call your customer.
Living, Breathing Stories
Of course, many of us in the marketing discipline do already call our customers. We interview them for case studies and put them on our advisory boards and ask for product feedback.
But what I’m suggesting is just a regular cadence of check-ins just to understand what’s top-of-mind for them. It’s not a sales call, but rather a way to understand how they’re thinking on a day-to-day basis, throughout different times of the year, and during unique events. What decisions are they considering and when (and why)? Thank them for taking the time to speak with you with a coffee or cocktail. (Alternatively, you could send them a handwritten note or another token of appreciation if you don’t live in the same region.)
Cycle through interviews with different customers to ensure you’re getting a diversity of perspectives. Keep the questions short (don’t exhaust your interviewees) and focus on getting into their state of mind to be the best resource possible. Find out …
At the same time, be sure to establish a strong pipeline of feedback from your sales, support, and other customer-facing teams. Use the same set of questions with these internal teams and compare that research to yours. Find the patterns. Then craft a mini messaging framework that aligns with your core framework but is hyper-focused on where your audience’s head is at right now.
As a situation changes or time goes on, allow that messaging framework to evolve. Even something as small as a change in certain vernacular should or a specific emphasis should be allowed to inform you’re saying to the market. Use continual research in order to make educated guesses on where to iterate. Let your stories live and breathe.
“Brand journalism” is one of those murky terms that typically has to do with sharing stories about a brand to build affinity; and it usually involves some combination of public relations, content, and corporate communications.
What I’m describing here is more like ... adaptive storytelling, where you know the story but you allow it to grow and adapt to the situation as necessary. This allows you to be a lighthouse to your buyers, customers, and community when they’re navigating uncertain waters; a reliable and trustworthy safe harbor.
Tone-deaf messages without relevance (and in uncertain times, hyper-relevance) fall on disinterested ears. Winning brands build relationships like people do: by creating mutual value, through shared positive experiences, and being there in times of need.
This piece is part 1 in a series about marketing agility. To read part 2, click here.
By Brianna Valleskey
Why do some ads go viral?
And why are others so easy to forget?
I started thinking about this after Nike’s “Dream Crazy” advertisement came out a few months ago. The video features former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, whom people love or love to hate.
You could argue that the video’s 27 million views are because Nike decided to feature Kaepernick in an ad, but the controversy was just a hook.
A much more real story lies at the heart.
If you haven't seen it, the video plays motivational music while showing people of every gender, race, religion, and economic status pursue their dreams in spite of societal standards: A child without legs in a wrestling match. A Muslim woman boxing. A homecoming queen who’s also a linebacker. An NFL player with only one hand. A professional tennis player from Compton.
“If people say your dreams are crazy—if they laugh at what you think you can do—good,” says an identified narrator. “Stay that way. Because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy isn’t an insult. It’s a compliment.”
Damn. That’s something I can really feel. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Having a “crazy” dream is something I think everyone has experienced at least once in their lives.
And then there was the #LikeAGirl campaign from Always, where young women and little girls explaining what it means to run “like a girl.” While the teenagers acted like damsels in distress, the girls ran their adorable little hearts out. It’s a sweet but sad reminder of how society warps the way girls see themselves as they grow up. That video has 66 million views.
Two very different commercials. Same effect.
So what’s the secret ingredient?
They're our way of making sense of the world.
“When people read a book, watch a movie or hear a story, regardless of medium or format, it is imperative that they see themselves in the story,” write SapientNitro executives Gastron Legorburu and Darren McColl in “Storyscaping.”
These stories are so powerful because they tap into something that millions of people have personally experienced. The story in the ad becomes our story (and vice versa).
And this has been the case for thousands of years.
From Cave Paintings to Kaepernick
Of course, modern marketers were not the first storytellers. Cave paintings dating as far back as 40,000 thousand years ago inform us that our ancestors felt the urge to express their experience.
“Whether it’s Neanderthal elbow rubbing or social media socializing, story is central to what it means to be human,” write Legorburu and McColl.
Perhaps this can, in part, explain why the same stories appear across space, time, and culture.
“Every culture has a flood story about how the whole earth was flooded and things started over,” says mythologist John Bucher on an episode of Ologies. “Stories of floods predated Hebrew scripture, [from] Amazonian culture, Greek culture, Roman culture, Asian culture.”
Stories are the driving force behind the history we learn, the religion we practice, the government we follow, the beliefs we hold, the people we love, and even the way we think about ourselves. Studies show that reframing your narrative can yield a more positive identity.
And yes, gamification of social media platforms makes them incredibly addictive. But there’s more to it: What other medium gives people complete and utter control over how others see their story? Not to mention the ability to voraciously consume stories about others.
Legorburu and McColl again: “Humans have an innate ability to take disparate events and connect them together to create meaning.”
To tell stories is to be human.
But why is it that the marketers at Nike and Always and other world-dominating brands can use stories to awaken our hearts and, consequently, open our wallets?
This is Your Brain on Stories
Long before Joseph Campbell and “The Hero’s Tale” helped George Lucas produce the most well-known space opera of all time, Aristotle taught us that every story should have a beginning, middle, and end.
This three-act structure is important, mythologist John Bucher explains, because the way storytelling structure works actually mirrors the way the human brain solves a problem.
1. A goal or yearning is introduced, but conflicts and/or obstacles arise.
This goes even further.
“Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response,” writes Harrison Monrath in a Harvard Business Review article.
He goes on to say that research from Neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows how our brains produce cortisol (the stress hormone) during tense moments in a story, while sweet/cute/etc. elements of a story can cause our brains to elicit oxytocin (a chemical that makes us feel good). What’s more? A happy ending can trigger the release of dopamine in our limbic system, making us feel hopeful and optimistic.
Zak, himself, writes in another Harvard Business Review article that these findings are relevant to business settings.
“For example, my experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later,” Zak writes.
The advertisements from Nike (Dream Crazy) and Always (#LikeAGirl) are character-driven. For Nike, the character is the underdog. With Always, it’s adolescent girls. But there’s another element still that makes them so powerful.
“The most successful storytellers often focus listeners’ minds on a single important idea and they take no longer than a 30-second Super Bowl spot to forge an emotional connection,” Monrath writes.
This, my dear readers, is key.
Stories are Shared Experiences
What’s the one word, phrase, idea, or vision you want your audience to walk away with? And how will you get that across before you lose their attention?
Nike doesn’t just want you to dream big. It wants you to dream crazy. And Always wants women and girls everywhere to know that “like a girl” is not an insult.
Neither of these things has anything to do with the products Nike and Always sell. Yet, Always saw a higher-than-average lift in brand preference after the #LikeAGirl ad, where purchase intent grew by more than 50%. And Nike experienced a 31% increase in online sales following the release of its Dream Crazy spot.
So what does this all mean?
The best marketing isn't marketing at all—it's storytelling. Authentic, emotional, and character-driven stories stimulate our brains and saturate our hearts.
Stories trigger the most important brand message of all: You belong.
Everything else is posturing.
Fearless Thoughts are my insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, startups, business growth, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.