In the social media age, companies still obsess over controlling their brand narratives. But here’s the hard truth – it’s impossible to control your narrative fully. Between influencer promos, meme wars and non-stop chatter, countless forces shape brand stories that are outside your control.
But you can guide your narrative. Instead of chasing total authority, savvy brands steer storytelling by embracing vulnerability. We’ll explore four attainable ways to strengthen your brand in the social age: strategic partnerships, leveraging influencers wisely, staying culturally relevant and building an engaged community.
The Risks and Rewards of Letting Go
Once upon a time, controlling brand stories was straightforward. Companies blasted press releases and ad campaigns through one-way media like print, radio and TV. But social media ignited two-way conversations between brands and consumers, reshaping brand storytelling forever.
In fact, research from Bulbshare found that 99% of Gen Zers will skip ads when possible and nearly two-thirds use ad blockers. Social platforms shifted narrative power from brands to dynamic online dialogues between consumers, critics and influencers.
Yet many companies cling to outdated top-down mindsets that backfire today. For cautious brand managers, losing control seems scary and overwhelming. Social teams restrict influencer partnerships to protect the "official" narrative. Legal departments issue takedown notices to squash unauthorised usage or parody. Keeping a tight grip on your brand narrative appears safer, limiting risk through policing.
But these tactics only alienate audiences who expect an open exchange, not one-sided dictates. Relinquishing control is counterintuitive yet essential. Rather than chasing total authority, shrewd brands expand their spectrum through strategic engagement that creates value for audiences.
That’s not to say you should abandon any influence or authority your brand may carry, as it can be disastrous. Uber learned this the hard way when it stayed silent on Trump's 2017 travel ban. A viral #DeleteUber campaign portrayed the company as a villain. Meanwhile, rival Lyft responded by donating $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union and reaped the benefits of Uber’s paralysis.
The key is using your power carefully and accepting good intentions won’t always be viewed as such – no matter how hard you insist. True success means balancing necessary control with risks that reveal resonant truths. It’s about understanding your unique terrain and taking educated chances to connect authentically. Influence comes from building relationships, not just making statements.
So, how can brands guide their narratives successfully?
1. Strategic Brand Partnerships
Brand partnerships are a brilliant way to promote your business in the social age. But choosing partners takes strategy – you can't just team up with a random brand and expect success. Alignment with your goals and values is essential. Joining your narrative with a complementary brand’s story allows you to tap into new demographics that share your principles.
A smart example is yoghurt giant Chobani's approach to partnerships. As a mission-driven brand focused on health and ethics, Chobani grew through teaming up with like-minded companies. For instance, it partnered with Walmart to create affordable Greek yoghurt options, reaching Walmart's budget-conscious shoppers while expanding its own distribution.
Chobani also partners with fair labour farms, donating profits to support workers. These partnerships authentically reflect Chobani's image as an ethical, socially conscious brand.
Another great example is Coca-Cola's wildly successful partnership with Bacardi, which seamlessly blended their respective beverage narratives. Bacardi attracted Coke's wider audience while penetrating Bacardi’s alcohol market. Their stories highlighted natural synergies that engaged both fanbases.
In contrast, McDonald's delivery partnership with Amazon Go confused customers. The ultra-efficient, tech-forward Amazon brand clashed with Maccy D's classic fast-food offering. Similarly, Peloton's collaboration with Sex and the City, in which Mr. Big overexerted himself on a bike and then died, was perhaps the most bizarrely on-trend death ever – but also a total PR nightmare for the fitness brand. So, before teaming up, do your due diligence to ensure narrative, audience and product alignment.
The key is ensuring proper alignment on:
- Brand values: Partner with companies that share your ideals and priorities. Mismatched values distort your identity and consumers are wise to flimsy collaborations.
- Target audience: Look for partners whose customers are your customers. This expands your reach efficiently.
- Products: Seek partners with complementary offerings that make sense bundled together. Avoid disjointed combinations.
When partnerships strategically reinforce your positioning and values, they become an engine for organic growth. But partnerships chasing trends or hype often flop due to misalignment. Only join forces with brands that authentically reflect your identity.
2. Leverage Influencer Partnerships Wisely
Influencer partnerships are crucial for driving brand awareness and growth in the digital age. Data shows businesses earn $5.20 for every $1 spent on influencer marketing – that’s way more than old-school ads.
Meanwhile, 92% of consumers now trust an influencer endorsement over brand ads, according to Nielsen. When it comes to Gen Z, 76% follow at least one influencer while 45% follow over 10. But putting your brand in someone else's hands is daunting.
Avoiding brand crises requires oversight. Here are some smart tips to minimise risks and maximise the success of your influencer initiatives:
- Collaborate, don't dictate. Rigid control backfires. Treat influencers as creative partners, not mere promo vehicles. Remember, in most cases, they know their audience better than you do.
- Seek strategic alignment between influencer and brand values/audience. Don't just chase clout. It's about finding the right fit, not the biggest name.
- Look beyond big names. Micro-influencers often drive more authentic engagement. Think niche appeal over broad reach.
While the NFL has a chequered history, it has succeeded in leveraging its players as influencers to bring authenticity to its brand narrative.
Star athletes like Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce have massive personal followings thanks to their successes on the field and engaging social presences. Showcasing their personalities and lives builds deeper fan connections through perceived transparency.
This reached new heights when Travis Kelce began dating Taylor Swift. The ‘partnership’ expanded both their brands. Swift’s appearance at a Chiefs game resulted in 29.4 million viewers tuning in, making it the second most-watched game of 2023, while Kelce went on to star in Swift's music video. Their high-profile relationship enabled the NFL to tap into Swift’s devoted fan base and pop culture clout.
Meanwhile, fast-food chain Wendy's saw success partnering with rap meme account @HankTrill. His wacky, on-brand content resonated with hip-hop fans more authentically than a forced celebrity tie-in.
The key is finding creators who authentically connect with your product and giving them creative freedom within brand guidelines. Relinquishing control over how your story gets told can paradoxically lead to more compelling human narratives, which resonate more with your target audiences.
3. Stay Culturally Relevant
Dismissing cultural developments as ‘frivolous’ kills brand relevance as audiences move on. Gen Zers drive many viral trends, memes and platform adoption. You need to track youth narratives and remix stories for new landscapes continually.
The stats speak for themselves. 72% of Gen Z are most receptive to ads in social feeds. And over half say they'll engage with ads if they’re creative and amusing. Language-learning app Duolingo uses meme humour and viral trends, creating culturally savvy content that helped them become a wildly popular lockdown app. But they’re selective about the trends they embrace, only hopping on ones that align with their brand narrative – the app avoids chasing fleeting hype just for the sake of it.
An agile, test-and-learn mindset is key. Be willing to experiment with content across narratives and platforms. For example, Coca-Cola leveraged influencer partnerships for its #1CokeIsIt campaign while amplifying niche comedians on TikTok. This multi-layered approach resonated better than standalone tactics.
Don't let fear of mistakes stop you from trying, either. Properly investing in cultural awareness takes budget, time and accepting uncertainty. Hire staff aware of youth narratives. Empower them and allow them to guide you. External specialists can provide valuable cultural insights too.
McDonald's nailed this with a TikTok campaign embracing viral trends that promoted its spicy nuggets. And Skittles’ partnership with Gen Z icon Charli D'Amelio to unveil limited-edition flavours cleverly leveraged Snapchat’s playful vibe, spiking sales 150%.
Remember, actual relevance requires truly understanding your audience, not blind trendjacking. And scrimping by getting an intern to “do TikTok” isn’t going to cut it. Work with specialists adept at tracking the cultural pulse.
4. Build an Engaged, Value-Led Brand Community
Brand communities present a highly effective yet underutilised opportunity for growth in the social era. Per research, active members have 4x higher lifetime values than average customers. Yet only 29% of brands cultivate communities.
Online (and offline) communities allow superfans to engage with your brand and each other. Members share product reviews, lifestyle tips and brand stories. This organic, user-generated content emerges from affinity, not advertising budgets. Even better, communities enable social listening and intelligence gathering, as well as giving you the opportunity to join the conversation.
Guided by its mission of “bringing people together for a better world”, food brand Danone built an engaged community of brand “manifesters” who happily share sustainability insights and grassroots marketing ideas in their own voices.
Similarly, spirits maker Beam Suntory has cultivated a passionate community of over 30,000 brand advocates to “inspire human connections”. Beam engages members through exclusive behind-the-scenes content, distillery tours, and sustainability insights, fostering a collaborative, value-driven environment where fans freely share their love for the brand.
Meanwhile, Diageo took a different approach, building a private community providing exclusive product access and distillery tours. These VIP perks make members feel valued.
To build a thriving community, ensure you:
- Invest seriously. Don't pawn communities off on untrained interns. Devote experienced staff.
- Foster value-driven conversations. Don't just broadcast promotions. Share your purpose and values.
- Make it a two-way exchange. Listen and respond to feedback. Co-create value with members.
- Offer exclusivity. Give inner circle access to content and perks to make them feel special.
- Bridge online and offline. Organise local meetups and events to take connections into the real world.
Nothing is more powerful than advocates who genuinely love your brand. Those advocates will also help block out the haters, if your brand were ever to have them.
Cultivate a Distinct Brand Personality
A unique brand personality allows you to craft consistent, emotionally resonant narratives that connect with your audience. Studies show emotional branding drives sales more than functional claims or cost-benefit messaging.
Your brand personality should:
- Align with your audience's aspirations and values.
- Differentiate you through unique attributes.
- Translate your purpose into human traits.
- Inform all touchpoints cohesively.
- Evolve thoughtfully over time.
For example, Sprite carved out a niche for freedom and non-conformity, which is often missing in traditional soda marketing. Its devoted drinkers embrace this anti-authoritarian attitude.
Even apologies present chances to showcase brand personalities. When KFC's new fries flopped, they issued a rare, humorous mea culpa owning their mistake. This lighthearted response aligned with the company’s casual, conversational public image.
Brands can also highlight distinct personalities through well-judged banter. Kit Kat praising rival Twix in an endearing tweet illustrated its quirky, community-focused attitude versus purely self-promotional messaging.
Defining a distinctive brand personality establishes narrative guardrails while allowing creative freedom. Consumers gravitate to stories with relatable, emotional appeal. An authentic brand persona acts as your narrative compass.
In the chaotic social media landscape, brands feel the urge to tighten the reins of control. But grasping too firmly creates an illusion of brand authority while losing your narrative and stifling authentic audience connections.
The brands that will continue to succeed embrace strategic vulnerability. They forge partnerships with strong synergies. They collaborate with influencers as creative allies. And they nurture brand communities united by shared values, not one-way corporate communications.
By relinquishing the need to dictate every mention, they build authentic narratives that organically resonate across earned channels. And paradoxically, these vulnerable collaborations yield more influence than top-down decrees could achieve. Yes, there are risks in giving up control, but the benefits often outweigh them.
In an era where consumers hold power, brands that truly thrive encourage participation over proclamation. They co-create value with partners, influencers and brand communities. And they remember relinquishing control is not surrender – it's allowing space for their purpose to shine.