CURATE PRESENTS: Telling Your Brand Story With Empathy

By Christopher Durso, Vice President of Content Development, Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI)

With HSMAI’s Spring Curate 2020 event canceled due to COVID-19, we are developing content around the planned theme of Curate, “Leadership in Changing Times” — including this interview.

What is a brand? Is it a reaction? An interaction? An emotion? For Miri Rodriguez, head of the global internship program at Microsoft and author of Brand Storytelling: Put Customers at the Heart of Your Brand Story, it’s an ephemeral mix of all of those things. And more. “The brand is the experience that you leave behind when someone comes in contact with you,” Rodriguez said in a recent interview with HSMAI. “Branding really is an idea of having to intentionally drive that experience, that feeling. What do you walk away with when you come into contact with this hotel, with this car brand, whatever the case may be?”

Brand Storytelling is a new book, but Rodriguez conceived of and wrote it before COVID-19 turned the world upside-down. She had been doing storytelling in the tech space — “specifically stories around data and AI and making them human,” she said, exploring how automation will affect brand marketing. “We’re seeing it already, how it’s intricately taking over the minutiae of our work, the operational and logistics part of our work,” Rodriguez said. “As humans, where does that leave our interconnectedness and our human-to-human connection?”

An important question, but in the age of coronavirus, Brand Storytelling takes on even greater resonance — especially for hospitality companies, whose commitment to human-to-human connection has been upended by the imperatives of public health and safety. How do they tell their brand stories now? Rodriguez has some ideas.

How does a brand communicate its story? Is it mostly about marketing — digital and otherwise?

There’s so much more to it than that. I think that’s where the misunderstanding goes around. When you hear brand storytelling, people think, “Oh, I can just create stories and talk about my brand.” It’s really not that at all. It’s truly almost a rebirth of what you think your brand stands for in society in general, and what it does beyond the product and service.

We’re learning that millennials and Gen Z and future generations really want to befriend the brand. Younger consumers and the ones that have the biggest buying power today are looking at brands and saying, “What does it give me beyond that product and service, because there are competitors that probably have the same-quality product or service. Beyond that, what can it give me? What does it stand for? How good is it to society? Is it just about the bottom line? If it is, I’m probably not tuning into it.” They’re already humanizing the brand: “Can the brand woo me to have a relationship with it?”

When you think about storytelling, brands need to think about that. They need to think about the journey of the consumer from end to end. That storytelling really is weaving every contact that the consumer has with the brand at every level. It’s not one story. It’s many stories. It’s the salesman, it’s the customer service rep, it’s the logo, it’s the tweet, it’s the TikTok. It’s all part of the brand storytelling piece.

So, a brand doesn’t have one single story to tell?

No, a brand has a mission. The brand’s mission really sets the theme of the story, but the stories can be many and should be many. When you think about hotels, for example, and you have someone come to the reception desk, that is a story setting to the consumer — how they’re treated at the reception desk. When they go to their room and they order room service, that’s the next story. There are so many storytellers, if you will, that drive the story mission for the brand. When you really think about the brand’s story, you have to start with the brand mission. What does it stand for?

How does a company communicate the elements that it wants its employee storytellers to then communicate to customers?

In my book, I talk about that specifically. There’s a whole chapter around turning your employees into an army of storytellers, because the reality is your employees are telling the story of your brand. They go outside and they talk about how much they either love or hate it. How they grab the story, how they understand it, and how they personalize it is very important.

I give ideas around a top-down approach of leaders sharing the story, sharing the message consistently from every angle, from an internal communications standpoint. For example, for [Microsoft], it’s really, how are we empowering you? I talk to our interns and our question is, are you feeling empowered? Are you empowered? In fact, on our badges at Microsoft, when you turn the badge over, on the backside is our mission: to empower every person in the organization. Every day I’m looking at our mission, ingraining this message — the brand story — internally for every employee, and empowering them as well, enabling them by giving them resources to tell the story in their space.

What mistakes do you see companies make when it comes to brand storytelling?

A very general one is that people believe there’s maybe one or two ways to tell a story — it’s story structure, and they stick to that alone. They don’t really think about story designing, which is most important, because only you know what’s best for your audience. You should know them. You should study them. You should observe them.

There’s a lot of research and empathy that needs to happen at this first level of storytelling. To assume that one structure, one element, will work, or that one storytelling setting will work — usually it’ll be the hero’s journey, which is the most popular one. People dig in and say, “Oh, I’m just going to use this story structure and plug in my content into this and make it fit.” That’s a huge mistake, because it may not land well. Most of the times it won’t, because it’s not one-size-fits-all.

The second [mistake some companies are making], I would say, is a lack of empathy — not taking time to understand how this will land. Right now, a lot of brands and companies are starting to rethink that measure because of where we are in this global pandemic: Do I stop selling? Do I stop putting out ads? What does that look like? My answer to them is, no, you have to empathize with your audience and ask yourself, ethically, how will that land with your audience in this moment where everybody as a human is feeling distraught? That’s your answer. It’s really the lack of empathy, where we need to be more human. Let the robots be robots and us stay human in our digital age.

The last one is around thinking about the channels. A lot of brands, once a new channel pops up, will say, “Oh, I have to be on TikTok.” Not really. Is your audience on TikTok? Every channel’s different. Where’s your audience, is the question. If they’re on Facebook, stay on Facebook. If you’ve mastered Facebook, keep mastering Facebook until you master other channels. Don’t stress out about all the channels that exist and all the new technologies. We had audiences move from Twitter to Instagram, or from Instagram to LinkedIn. When you see that shift, follow them. Following your audience is the most important thing. It really is empathy-driven. At the core level, always, is: Where is your audience? Follow them, don’t make them follow you.

Does a brand’s story change during a crisis like this? Or is how it should communicate its story what changes?

I think both. From what I’ve seen, honestly, it changes because we are changing. That’s important to recognize. Back to empathy: We’re seeing brands pivot their services. We’re seeing hotels in New York offering rooms to medical personnel when they’re not receiving guests. What’s happening right now propels brands to think about change in how the brand’s story is told.

What doesn’t change is the theme. The theme will always be this central idea that weaves it all together, the glue of the story. For us at Microsoft, again, empowerment is our word; empowerment’s our theme. The theme shouldn’t change, because it keeps that consistent tone of what the brand stands for, but the story should, because then people recognize, okay, they’re not acting the same because we’re not the same. They’re not being normal because the world’s not normal.

It’s a particular challenge for hotel companies right now, because their theme is hospitality, which must be balanced with the need for social distancing, self-isolation, etc.

That’s right. It’s the feeling that people get when they visit hotels. It’s creating a safe haven, a place to rest, a place to recreate your mind. Even if you’re on business travel, you want home away from home. When you think about that idea, what does home mean to people right now? What is that feeling that the hotels can share and maybe pivot and say, “We’re not open right now, but we’re waiting to give you this feeling back”? What are the messages? What is the content that they’ve created in the past that can remind people of that feeling?

How should brands be planning now for their post-crisis storytelling?

Right now is the moment to prepare. Look at your mission and say, “Is it congruent with what we want? Is it what we want to be? Should we pivot from here? Should we change it?” Change it. It’s okay. Just go ahead and give yourself permission to be vulnerable and pivot. It is a moment of crisis globally, and everyone really is changing out of this. So, it’s a nice way to evolve if you want to evolve the brand mission, the brand stories in general.

I would say preparation includes technology as well. Think about the new technologies that you probably weren’t using to tell the stories. If you were only blogging, if you were only using photos, if videos were not top of mind, maybe you want to switch to videos. There are a lot of new technologies for storytelling that you can think about. Brainstorming these ideas is something that every brand should be doing. Get a very diverse group of people and storyboard the brand’s story. I really recommend that, because it changes everything. When you storyboard the brand’s story, make believe that you can’t talk about it. Make believe that you can’t actually explain it. You’re going to just draw these storyboards.

I’ve done this exercise many times. You’ll see how different it looks on paper when a group of people get together and say, “Okay, this is our story list — the first frame, the second frame, the conclusion. We can’t talk about it. We just have to show it.”

For additional information, insights, and tools, visit HSMAI’s Global Coronavirus Resources page.

Categories: Marketing
Insight Type: Articles