In a world of conversations, everyone has something to say. You can’t control that – nor should you, at least not in a democracy. Some people will agree with you. Others will not. You can’t control that either. Some will argue their case against what you are doing or suggest that you are not doing it correctly. They have the right to make their point within legal bounds.
But where a lot of brands go wrong is that they take their cue for their own storytelling from the stories that others are telling about them. Their story, in other words, manifests itself in the form of reactions to other people’s stories rather than as actions built around their own narrative.
Don’t get me right. Brands must respond to the assertions of others. But they cannot allow others to control the brand conversation to the point where their own share of voice is lost. They must know and advance their own viewpoints.
Too many brands view challenges as criticism and react to them that way, instead of looking upon them as what I believe they increasingly are: competition for attention in the “ideaplex” – John Butman’s nifty phrase for the profusion of activities, channels, structures and technologies generated for the creation, distribution and consumption of ideas. Great book by the way.
Ideas have, as Butman rightly points out, proliferated to the point of glut. And stories are of course the perfect vehicle within which to express a myriad of opinions – some of which will concur with your actions as a brand, and others that will not. Now everyone wants to get their point across – brands, advocates, NGOs, politicians, senior management – and the media and social media provide a perfect pitching ground within which to raise hopes and doubts.
Today, we are all litigators, pursuing and prosecuting agendas and viewpoints in equal measure. Debate is healthy. It’s a sign of a competitive and free market at work.
Brand owners and managers shouldn’t be afraid of that. As my friend Janelle Barlow once wrote, “Complaint is a gift” because customers who complain are at the very least emotionally engaged with you. I suspect the same is true of criticism, or at the very least of authentic criticism – consumers in particular want to know what you are doing, why, and how you justify that. Criticism and commentary is their way of holding you to account. They want to see you do what’s right. And that, it seems to me, is a lot better than them not caring about what you are doing (or not knowing what you think).
Time and again, I’ve seen research that shows that a brand or industry’s most vociferous critics were also the people who most wanted to know more and who were most open to changing their minds if their fears or concerns were acquiesced. The contradiction is not surprising on reflection. Speculation will always fill a vacuum. If people don’t know your story, your position or your achievements, they will fill that information gap with rumours, concerns or other people’s suggestions or data.
As the battle for market share sheets increasingly into a battle of stories, the challenge more and more brands face is unfurling and advancing a credible, loveable, spreadable chronicle over a sustained period of time: a story that is consistent in its messages, responsive in its approach and flexible in its expression.
The contrast is equally stark. You either know your story and run your conversation your way or else someone else runs the agenda and you end up locked in a response loop.
Photo of “Jump through no-see/talk/listen zone?”, taken by Bes Z, sourced from Flickr