The power of stories

Corporate or brand identity as a springboard for corporate storytelling

People love stories. The media does, too. Two good reasons to leverage the power of storytelling in corporate communications. To help companies tell their own stories, the IMD Institute for Branding and Design (part of the Steinbeis Transfer Center at the University of Mannheim) has developed an approach that could be described as the missing link between traditional communications and the dynamic world of Web 2.0.

In mature, saturated markets, companies need to use what they offer to distinguish themselves from the competition with razor-sharp precision. Until recently, traditional advertising was the medium of choice to achieve this. Companies would formulate a “reason why,” a “unique selling proposition” whenever possible, a “consumer benefit”, plus additional benefits – and then find a suitable “tone of voice.” This style of advertising shaped the short-winded stories that were “pushed” through selected channels into the market.

This “controlled release” in communications no longer reflects how companies actually communicate. Today’s communications are, at the very least, a conversation. Even worse: With the invention of blogs, communities and other online social media, communication can happen without the company doing anything – or even knowing about it. Given this loss of control, leading advertising agencies are confident when they deem that advertising is dead. Now the search is on for new approaches, new ideas, new solutions.

In spending time with companies to help boost their profile and strategically realign their communications, the IMD pulled together an approach that smoothes the transition between traditional, advertisingheavy communications to a new paradigm of networked, instant communications that are easy to navigate and monitor. The approach is called “The 5 levels of activity in strategic corporate and brand communications.”

This approach unifies ideas and methods regarding corporate identity (CI) that have been around since the 1970s into one strategic concept, and uses this concept as a springboard for all future corporate and brand communication activities. In the first stage of work, the IMD begins to develop a CI or brand identity by placing equal emphasis on developing a consistent look and feel – the corporate or brand design – and formulating a brand or corporate story that both creates and communicates an identity.

The brand or corporate story works as a long-term narrative and the central element that communicates the brand or corporate identity. No matter what media are used or whether one-off, short, medium or longterm communications come into play, the story acts as a thread of continuity in terms of content.

During the next two stages, the corporate brand story is dramatized for advertising purposes and properly prepared for use in a variety of separate media. In a number of projects, IMD was able to successfully prove that this approach worked.

The Steinbeis experts in Mannheim joined forces with Phoenix Solar and Wirsol Solar to develop authentic yet inspiring corporate brand stories based on an existing CI. The solar industry is quite young, and both sales and the intensity of the competition are growing by leaps and bounds. Wirsol Solar, for example, no longer simply lists its spectrum of services; instead, the company uses new stories to illustrate the history of independence in energy supply – made possible by the sun’s energy. Distilled into one slogan, the story of “solar independence” caught on in the U.S. market by playing with the country’s founding and the way the U.S. perceives itself. This new, definitive look and feel – the corporate design (CD) – equips the company with a powerful instrument to manage its own brand and monitor communications across all media channels.

Equally competitive is the NGO/NPO arena. Attention, members and donors are hardfought. The German Central Institute for Social Issues, for instance, estimates that nearly 2,000 individual and charitable organizations conduct nationwide fundraising in a market worth billions. Here, too, IMD carried out CI and CD projects for the German wing of the UN refugee agency, Doctors Without Borders and the German Workers’ Welfare Association (AWO). The “meta-level” of service and the stories it generated helped make these NGOs truly distinct:

  • the German arm of Doctors Without Borders expresses its worldwide emergency services with “Human. Unconditionally”
  • the German wing of the UN refugee agency has positioned itself as the “advocate for refugees on behalf of the world”
  • the AWO now speaks more decidedly, and with more emotion, as “the assertive advocate for social issues in policy-making.”

What’s more, by integrating the corporate or brand story into CI, the 5 levels of activity in strategic corporate and brand communications provide a narrative anchor for conversations in social media and Web 2.0 – where companies have little to no control. Embedded in comprehensive CI, the corporate or brand story builds a much-needed bridge between traditional communications and the dynamic world of Web 2.0.

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