Integration Essays: The power of the story

Storytelling can give that all-important focus to a brand's message by bringing together the myriad elements that help deliver it from advertising and PR to packaging and distribution.

There is a lot written around how hard it is to integrate your marketing thinking and doing. And a lot written about the theory of what one needs to align (other than the stars) in order for it to occur. So I'm going to abandon all attempts to formulate a set of golden rules, and instead use my 1,000 words to discuss how, over the past 12 months, we've been trying to unite the thinking and doing for our clients.

The modern landscape is by no means straightforward. We operate in an environment where client company structures are becoming more and more complex. Marketing and sales functions are being forced ever closer together over time. It's further complicated if you're navigating global and local structures and cultures.

On top of that, we have a UK media market littered with more than 1,400 different media channels. The largest, most complex media owner - Google - did not even exist 11 years ago. And all of these media outlets target consumers who are self-editing, picking and mixing, Tweeting, blogging and Skyplusing to distraction.

Then, somewhere in-between, we have us. The agencies. I reckon the average client has around 30 significant others to create, interpret or deliver its brand's message: advertising, PR, packaging, design and media through to customers services, distribution and fulfilment - all playing a role in getting the brand to market. Each has its own take on the client's strategy and each - arguably - will fight with the rest over the execution of that strategy.

So we needed a way to make this complex landscape simple; of making all these parties work in concert. A way of getting brands to behave coherently and consistently across the board. Most importantly, one that could be understood by and bought into by all the above, be they client, consumer or supplier.

And so we came to storytelling.

Stories take loosely aligned facts and turn them into strongly held beliefs. Stories help us pull together the rational pieces of a picture into a more emotional, meaningful whole. A story is a coherent, cohesive force that pulls people together and moves them forward together. Oh, and loads of other communications people or companies have used stories or storytelling. It probably works.

So we've taken six story archetypes and now use them to arrange our clients' brand behaviour and investment. They're the underlying logic to a brand's myriad messages and channels, regardless of where or when you encounter that brand.

The six stories we use are very straightforward and simple: who I am; why I'm here; I have a dream; I'll show you how; I do, therefore I am; and I know what you're thinking.

Each story has its own philosophy, operating principles, media behaviour and channel and investment strategies. Each story is, therefore, the guiding principle we use to arrange all the brand's activity.

Often, the story will need to evolve or even switch as the landscape and issues demand, which is fine. The key thing is for the company, the brand and all the agency partners to adhere to the lead and overarching story. Or integrate around one story, you could say.

So how do you develop your story? What do you take into account and how do you decide what's important? Well, first you look at the consumer stories in the market place already, followed by the stories your competitors are telling. Then, to find your brand's story, we go through the normal rigours of a typical business planning approach, getting as many of the authors of the brand's message as possible together to workshop the story types against the business and communications objectives. A sprinkle of magic and a lot of logic later, and we've got the story for your brand. You've now got a single, unifying theory to unite and integrate behind. This can work in two ways.

There could be a strong executional element in the mix, be it a great ad (or campaign), a PR thread, or a promotional vehicle. This very quickly becomes the executional beacon for your story. For example, when you have a strong "who I am" story such as "the world's local bank", it quickly informs the ways in which the brand should behave - across all internal audiences, consumer groups and external agencies. Another example would be Lynx's "spray more, get more", a clear articulation of a "why I'm here" story. In these cases, all you have to do is pick up the story philosophy and its operating principles - and away you all go.

When there is no integration across the brand's activity, we've found it's usually due to too much silo thinking, not united by a clearly articulated and shared strategy. In these cases, getting everyone to come together over a story type based on facts - levitated slightly from pure analytics but not fully abstracted into an idea - helps unite all the disparate views in the group. The same direction can then be executed in varied ways - but will always have a common genus and a shared purpose.

So the story galvanises. It helps integrate every single piece of activity under a clear, simple and effective set of principles. It corrals every stakeholder of a company or brand, and speaks directly - and in the most engaging way - to the consumers. The story stands above the idea and is open enough for great ideas to flare up inside it - but narrow enough to exclude ideas that don't serve it.

For us, stories seem to work. Not just because they offer up a process to ensure integration but more because they seem to create a common space where everyone involved can come together. So, ultimately, the power of the story is in the telling - which is how it's suppose to be, after all.