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Strategic Storytelling: What it Is and Why it's Critical to Your Brand

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Megan Kessler, Executive Vice President at PAN Communications, headshot
Megan Kessler
Executive Vice President | Boston, MA
  • Blog
  • Public Relations

Strategic Storytelling: What it Is and Why it's Critical to Your Brand

Megan Kessler, Executive Vice President at PAN Communications, headshot
Megan Kessler
Executive Vice President | Boston, MA
PAN Strategic Consulting Group is here.

Let’s go back to 2004. In a chilly Boston College classroom, a handful of students are waiting for the secrets of advertising to be revealed. Visions of high-stakes pitch meetings and exclusive events fill our minds as the professor steps up to the front of the class.  

“I am going to tell you the most important trait of every great advertiser,” he says.  

The class is captive. 

“They are people, like everyone else.” 

Not exactly the revelation we were expecting. 

 He continues: “The key to great advertising is your ability to understand what your audience thinks and feels because you can relate on a human level. It’s about drawing connections and cultivating relevance. The best ideas are achingly simple.” 

For anyone in that classroom who has stuck with this industry, that lesson has surely resonated over and over since that day. If there is one thing we strive for with each and every brand we partner with, it is to draw those connections to our shared humanity and cultivate relevance with what their audiences are thinking and feeling most acutely. The best campaigns are simple. They tell a story that taps emotions that people can relate to — demographics, geographics and industries aside. 

This is the core of strategic storytelling, and why it is critical to your brand. Whether crafting a corporate narrative that drives market visibility and company valuation, or positioning product or employment brands that differentiate and reflect stakeholder values, strategic storytelling always draws a connection with the conversations happening around our clients to ensure their stories resonate with the people they are trying to reach. It sounds simple — and it is — but strategic storytelling requires balancing a wide view of the world with a narrow understanding of what stakeholders care about now. 

PAN’s strategic storytelling series will take you through our process for setting a narrative that helps companies to both build brand equity and convert prospects. The series will examine: 

  1. The process for building your strategic narrative. What considerations are critical and what deliverables should you expect from your agency partners? 
  2. The moments when strategic storytelling matters most. From launching a brand, to recovering from a crisis, what milestones in your company’s lifecycle require a fresh look at your story? 

Often when brands walk through our doors at PAN they are looking for earned media support — for more than 80% of our programs, this is the core service we provide. But earned media success requires strategic storytelling and, increasingly, so does other demand gen content that performs in building brands and converting prospects.  

Strategic storytelling always draws a connection with the conversations happening around our clients to ensure their stories resonate with the people they are trying to reach.

Fittingly, our first step in creating a narrative that nets our clients earned media success is to look outside of a brand and its echo chamber, conducting a market audit that looks at their core competitors alongside aspirational brands who are leading on the topics and trends their audiences care most about. In essence, what are the upstream brands doing to make a difference and disrupt? 

Auditing the market is certainly not a novel concept. It is a reliable tool in every marcomm pro’s arsenal. But given pressures to stay in lockstep with competitor moves and to generate leads at every step, we’ve seen marketing and comms teams start to favor direct competitors over conversation leaders when mining for insight to drive their plans.

Breaking out of your company, your core competitor set or even your industry echo chambers will be unsettling. But it can help you discover fertile ground for more relevant and impactful storytelling.   

It’s important to take stock of whether your core competitors are active externally — are they engaging on the issues your stakeholders care about? Are they participating in mainstream discussions around the macro drivers of these issues? Do you know what those macro drivers are? If not, you need to extend your audit beyond direct competitors to include those brands who are leading relevant industry conversations, who are “first to market” with innovations that are truly solving issues. You’ll also need to look beyond the business world, in general, to include influencers in the public sector, education and the public at large. Breaking out of your company, your core competitor set or even your industry echo chambers will be unsettling. But it can help you discover fertile ground for more relevant and impactful storytelling.   

Once we’ve identified the competitors and influencers we want to monitor, we also set up a conversation analysis that looks at priority topics and trends broadly via keyword sets across earned, shared, owned and paid channels.  

We ask questions like:   

“Are the words your brand is using to communicate with its audiences reflecting how most people talk about these same topics?”  

“Is your brand leaning into terms and topics that have expired in relevance or lack meaning with stakeholders?”  

When used correctly, conversation monitoring tools can translate chatter happening across the media landscape into critical insight to guide strategic storytelling — the key is to understand what topics are connecting with your audiences today, whether they are waning or growing in popularity and whether you are using the same words as the audiences you seek to engage. 

It’s also critical to note that this kind of messaging alignment starts internally. It’s no secret that consumers will abandon brands they were loyal to due to bad customer experiences, and alignment is often the root of those experiences. A survey by Harvard Business Review recently found that 69% of brands rely on mass information overload to prepare frontline employees — which is inadequate to communicate the information those teams really need to position the brand and products to consumers. 

The key is to understand what topics are connecting with your audiences today, whether they are waning or growing in popularity and whether you are using the same words as the audiences you seek to engage. 

Alignment is where our expertise and insight as agency communicators shines — we watch the news and follow stories as they evolve across a wide swath of industries — our external lens, ability to uncover themes and connect them across many distinct industries is our superpower. 

Further, funneling these insights through the lens of conversation ownership (or share of voice) can help you identify which topics you have an opportunity to own — your whitespace — while reviewing popularity data can help determine whether a topic is worth leaning into. Sure, you could “create a category” as so many brands aspire to but, realistically, it may be better to meaningfully engage on the issues your stakeholders are already talking about, using their same language, instead focusing on how to make your positions or solutions stand out among the pack. But how? 

Understanding your story — and how to integrate it into mainstream discussions where your stakeholders will take notice — is key to making it work harder for your brand.

Let’s imagine your company operates in the supply chain space. Supply chain mentions, in general, have increased 116% in the last six months alone. We all know why — because we’ve all experienced a delay in our daily lives caused by supply chain challenges. This peak in the supply chain conversation translates to greater interest and attention for your strategic story within this space. You simply can’t manufacture the genuine interest created by macro drivers like a pandemic. Instead, you need to harness it. But a peaking conversation is also loud and competitive — so how do you stand apart?

Learn more about standing out in a crowded field.

This is where your “whitespace” comes into play. For example, let’s say you built a platform that routes last-mile deliveries using a network of independent drivers. In the broader supply chain conversation, your whitespace may be the concept that last-mile has become critical to enterprises large and small and that only you have the talent aligned to your platform to scale as a potential partner to Amazon or UPS. Perhaps you begin to monitor where this issue is being discussed alongside Amazon and UPS and start to comment or offer your experts to enter the conversation, hoping the brands will take note. Or, maybe, you build targeted ads calling out your scale and flexibility and start targeting stakeholders in these organizations directly. Understanding your story — and how to integrate it into mainstream discussions where your stakeholders will take notice — is key to making it work harder for your brand.    

The story itself is only half the battle — where you tell it is just as important. Once you’ve found your whitespace and set your strategic narrative, your agency team should help to cascade it through sharper content and smarter distribution, leveraging earned, shared, owned and paid channels to reach the right stakeholders. With the number of global social media users expected to reach 3.43 billion by 2023, it’s high time brands find ways to meet their audiences where they are. 

 With the right story in place to reach your audiences, your content and conversions can drastically improve. We’ve seen it time and again — the content we partner with our clients on is often the top performing content on their websites, their ad platforms and the source of social follower growth and conversions. 

Oftentimes, we’ll work in tandem with our clients to build the content arsenal that supports their story — whether that includes sales data, consumer research, customer or employee multimedia that helps bring the story to life with a human lens. We also help clients — working with their demand gen teams — think through the best channels for reaching their stakeholders, whether that is the mainstream vehicle of the Wall Street Journal or CNBC or more targeted email marketing or paid advertising strategies. With the right story in place to reach your audiences, your content and conversions can drastically improve. We’ve seen it time and again — the content we partner with our clients on is often the top performing content on their websites, their ad platforms and the source of social follower growth and conversions. 

See the results.

However, the work is not done once you’ve built your strategic storytelling arsenal. It’s important to revisit it regularly as your brand evolves. The best moments to consider activating a strategic storytelling exercise are when: 

  • You first begin your PR agency journey, engage a new agency partner or evolve your internal team 
  • The brand is struggling to gain visibility as a lesser-known company or within an evolving competitive set 
  • Embarking on major M&A events, including funding, acquisition or IPO 
  • Pursuing new priority audiences, including expanding markets/products or establishing/ refreshing your employment brand 
  • Initially constructing your ESG strategy. Setting your overarching narrative is essential to brand authenticity and differentiation in this work 
  • Repairing your reputation after a crisis and communicating your path forward 

Storytelling is a process, and strategic storytelling includes the added steps of planning and measuring a story’s impact. Over the course of this series, we will look not only at how the process works from start to finish, but also the wide variety of ways that strategic storytelling can be used to address common business pain points. Stay tuned as we explore different scenarios and share best practices and client examples. 

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