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Shiona McDougall

July 10, 2015

It’s time to listen to consumers
“Storytelling” is up alongside “wearable,” “content” and “urgent” as one of the most overused words in our industry. (Just look at the number of Cannes hours dedicated to it in recent years.)

But people have many stories to tell, which means marketers can respond to their needs more relevantly and quickly than ever. In order to do this, brands just have to listen harder and use today's sophisticated technology to tailor their shared narrative.

Delivering brand stories has become a marketing obsession. And, to be fair, there are some great examples of stories connecting brands with people on a more human level: The Lego Movie, Toshiba’s “Intel Inside” and “Pick Them Back Up” by Procter & Gamble, to name a few.

However, in our consumer-controlled, over-con­nected world, where people choose what they watch, share and interact with, “telling” feels like the wrong starting point. If it’s the modern brand’s job to listen as much as tell, perhaps it’s time for us marketers to shut up a bit more. With the “Internet of everything,” brands now have the perfect platform for sharing narratives as well as providing a meaningful response.

Your Mercedes-Benz, through its DriveStyle app, can now tell your Nest thermostat when you’re on your way home, so that you’ll be welcomed by a comfortable house upon your arrival. And while no brand communication takes place between you and Nest or Mercedes, you can view your usage data at any time and read your own story about energy efficiency. I argue that the sequel to this is possibly an on-going brand-consumer dialogue, where the heroes of the story are financial sense and eco-sensitivity.

Listen for relevance
Listening harder to consumers means we can respond more relevantly. The data we all generate, as we live our lives, tells the story of all the different people we can be. There’s you as the parent, the employee, the gym rat, the shopper, the bar-hopper. Transactional, social, time-and-place data lets on who you are at any given time, and what you might be feeling or thinking about. Too often, we ignore this information and tell our brand stories regardless, flooding our audience’s attention span with irrelevancies.

If a new mother is online at 2 a.m., we can be fairly sure that she’s sleep-deprived and needs advice on how to settle her baby. The last thing she needs is a reminder to stock up on diapers.

What’s the consequence of ignoring what people tell us? They ignore us — or, worse, we risk losing the right to speak to them.

Our Frequency, Familiarity and Fine Lines research (2014) has shown us that excessive retargeting, where we think we are being clever and relevant, can put people off buying from brands. In fact, so familiar are consumers with the role of cookies that 60% have deleted them to prevent re­targeting. That’s because we’re still generalizing, even with the sophisticated technology available.

In its white paper Embracing the Internet of Everything to Capture Your Share of $14.4 Trillion (2013), Cisco estimated that there is an additional $1.95T value at stake from connected marketing and advertising, because of the data that the connected life generates. Suddenly, “things” that were silent now have a voice — and if we fail to listen to the voices of the consumer, then we fail to enrich and deepen the shared narrative with consumers.

Brand bravery
We know, from several brand campaigns over the past few years, that the consumer is ready and waiting to own the storyline. The Prized Possessions digital campaign, by Extra Storage Space, generated more than 1,200 photos, and enough content, for its social campaign to dine out on for months. And Burberry’s long-running The Art of the Trench continues to draw in thousands of consumers, intent on expressing themselves through their love for the brand. These brands don’t own the story — they simply own the medium in which it is written. The authors are the brands’ advocates and champions, taking the opportunity to dictate how the chapters unfold.

Fortune (and manners) rest less on dictating the stories we want to tell and more on listening before we speak
The bravest brands don’t even edit the story. Cancer Research UK emailed people in its database with customized Race for Life invitations — and encouraged them to forward the email, post custom content on Facebook or talk about it on Twitter. While this meant giving up control of the messaging to consumers, it turned 3,000 opens into 400,000 views in the first wave.

It’s paramount to understand that brands now need consumers more than consumers need brands. Fortune (and manners) rest less on dictating the stories we want to tell, and more on listening before we speak — or even letting others speak on our behalf.

Mutually beneficial relationships can be built only through putting the consumer front and center, tuning into their behavior and setting their agenda before our own.

The data and technology that allows consumers and brands to co-write the narrative exists. But they will soon stop listening to brands if brands don’t listen to them. Silence is a virtue, after all.

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