We First Founder & CEO Simon Mainwaring sat down with author, speaker and business innovator Ekaterina Walter to discuss the biggest mistakes brands make in their impact and storytelling efforts and key actions to address them. Even deeper insights can be found in Ekaterina’s latest book The Laws of Brand Storytelling and at We First Works — an online training platform that helps individuals and businesses define and activate their purpose. .
SIMON MAINWARING: When you look at the intersection between purpose and storytelling– the way we understand it is your purpose is why you exist. It’s this slingshot that informs your brand storytelling that allows you to lead a conversation out there that will allow your business to become a movement. That has to exist in several places: your strategy, your culture and your creative work. So, there’s a direct connection between purpose and storytelling in the context of driving business growth.
KEY MISTAKE #1: Assuming brand storytelling is only the function of marketing.
EKATERINA: In some people’s minds, storytelling is content creation. The problem with that approach is that brand storytelling right now is the sum of all interactions real and perceived of all the brand experiences across all the touchpoints that people have with you. If I call your customer service and I have a crappy experience, that is your brand.
KEY ACTION #1: Break the silos across the organization, connect the dots around holistic consumer experience
EKATERINA: When you talked about the unity of how you present your brand, it’s also the unity of how you act. It’s not just a function of marketing. It’s a function of customer service, sales, PR, etc. At companies like Mercedes, every single person, even the one who sweeps the floor, knows that everything they do contributes to that better customer experience.
KEY MISTAKE #2: Staying neutral
EKATERINA: It’s funny what you said about Airbnb and how they live their purpose. Remember the travel ban happened and how they banded together and said, “Look this is who we are. This is what we stand for.” And an action. They created an approach to overcome the travel ban. They didn’t just talk about it. Staying neutral is horrible for brands right now. For years, everyone wanted to be Switzerland. You can’t be neutral anymore.
KEY ACTION #2: Take a stand
EKATERINA: Look at Nike and Kaepernick. Look at Patagonia and the environment. The best brands right now are saying, “We know who we are.” Which means it’s time to not just talk, but take an action. Don’t you find that people are tired of just talk? To them, brand storytelling isn’t messaging per say, it’s an action a company takes.
SIMON: I do. The fluff doesn’t cut it anymore. The titillation of the delivery platform isn’t enough. Don’t mistreat me, engage meaningfully, walk your talk, or we’re no interested.
KEY MISTAKE #3: Being ruled by fear
EKATERINA: That brings me to the next one. It’s interesting to me how scared brands are. Brand leaders are so ruled by fear and I don’t understand why because they’ve seen beloved brands actually try out new things and take risks. It’s not just about taking a stand, it’s about innovation internally. And not just product, but encouraging and nourishing small groups that build, create and scale total change within the company.
KEY ACTION #3: Draw outside the lines, get creative, take calculated risks
EKATERINA: I’m not saying jump off the cliff. Take a calculated risk. One of my favorite examples is Honey Maid and their Wholesome campaign. They knew when that campaign came out, where they featured parents of all kinds of walks of life (tattooed parents, parents of the same sex, etc.)… “Look, we’re going to take a hit by certain audiences.” And they decided that’s okay. Because this is what love is for us.
And when the criticism came at them, they addressed it globally. As a reply, they created this “Love” video where they took all the negative messages and created the word “love” out of it.” But the amount of positive [ feedback ] was 10x more.
KEY MISTAKE #4: Following vs. leading
EKATERINA: There’s such a thing as, “Oh my god, there’s a hot new thing on Twitter. Let’s get on it!” “People are trying out vertical videos — we’ve got to have one!” Just because something is a trend doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you.
KEY ACTION #5: Stop copying others. Just because something is a trend, it doesn’t mean it’s the right one for you. Moreover, create your own trends
EKATERINA: It’s fantastic that you’re tracking trends. But if you don’t understand why you’re doing it or how to do it right, then you become another blip on the radar. Why don’t you look at creating your own trend? Do something unique. Start a movement people can relate to and be consistent with it. Have you seen examples?
SIMON: It’s an example everybody always uses, but as a writer on Nike for 4 years up at Wieden+Kennedy — they never looked at Adidas or other brands to work out where they should go. They were very self-assured. Very self-determined. Very clear-eyed about who they were. They had a huge tolerance for risk. You’ve got to fail forward. You’ve got to put it out there. They’re not afraid to try.
KEY MISTAKE #6: Benchmarking your brand against industry competitors
EKATERINA: That’s the next mistake. Nike doesn’t benchmark against their industry competitors.
KEY ACTION #6: Benchmark against the best storytellers in the world
EKATERINA: They benchmark themselves against the Apples of the world. The top brands. They look at what Elon Musk is doing. Who are your heroes? Who do you want to be?
SIMON: I don’t think we need to just look at other advertisers to get inspired. [ Another ] thing I took away on the Nike brand was how they were constantly looking to culture, unknown artists and different mediums to find inspiration. When you say the best storytellers, I absolutely agree. And the best storytellers aren’t necessarily advertisers.