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How do brands create cultural relevance through compelling storytelling? | #PurposeMonth

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Consumers want to engage with brands that share their values. They want to be shown that a company cares about the world and the cultural movements that shape lives. But what is it that makes your brand culturally relevant? Andy Kirk, Design Strategy Director for 1HQ UK, thinks that it’s only through engaging stories that brands can cultivate and retain true relevance.

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Is purpose enough?

Brands naturally emanate their own culture, but the purpose of a brand is the best way to decide what that culture is going to be. Purpose and relevancy are intrinsically linked, but relevancy is the cornerstone for delivering on a purpose. The purpose becomes the narrative; the ‘what you do’, ‘why you do it’ and even ‘how you do it’. 

Purpose on its own is not enough, but if it’s well articulated and baked into the brand story, then much of the work is done. Coupled with this, is the need for a differentiated brand personality, because that in turn feeds a distinctive tone of voice. This process is about finding YOUR own brand voice. Without it, expressing your opinions is much harder as you need a voice to share your values; what, where and when to say it and how it can be adapted to suit different audiences.

On the face of it, the idea of storytelling jars with the weightiness of big issues because it sounds trivial; what have stories got to do with real life problems? But, in reality, storytelling is the backbone of ensuring a message is relevant. Relevancy strays into high emotions so good storytelling is important to not only make people listen, but to show that you have listened, too. 

The big picture and the ongoing narrative

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Brands have (at least) three stories to tell. The first is the big picture stuff, all about what makes you a relevant brand. This sets your place in the world. The second is how you are affected by today’s big issues and how you intend to make a difference, or how you set out to change the world. And the third is an ongoing narrative, the way you keep your brand on track and live up to your purpose. More simply, this demonstrates continual change and action, making sure that you stay relevant and can be empathetic. 

Living the ongoing narrative is the way in which brands react to topical stories that prove having a genuine finger on the pulse, not a soulless behemoth simply paying lip service to problems in the world. Issue driven subjects create a richer dialogue and are often more tangible and relatable than things that are only about your brand. Social shifts - and your own evolving attitudes - will help you to identify where and how your story needs to adapt. 

We say ‘adapt’ here because your basic story shouldn’t alter, it just must be able to flex. Stories aren’t static, especially as brands are constantly changing and growing with the times, economic realities and new trends, lifestyles, along with the big societal and cultural shifts. 

Compelling examples of purposeful storytelling

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Some examples of great storytelling include Wieden + Kennedy’s ‘Nothing Beats A Londoner’ for Nike. It shows how cultural stories can be expressive and reflect a brand’s personality by finding entertaining and engaging ways to stay relevant. Similarly, Ben & Jerry’s response to Black Lives Matter - Silence Is NOT An Option -helped to both educate consumers and keep the conversation going.

It takes confidence to jump into this kind of activity and all too often this can appear ill-considered and knee-jerk. However, with strong principles in place and taking the time to think, this type of response is easier to manage – but it should have a fresh take, not be a copycat comeback. Debate and discussion don’t have to be big spend campaigns, but they do need to be well thought out and consistently delivered. They also need to be sympathetic to the emotions they are ‘playing’ with.

It’s not the size it’s what you do with it

It’s not whether a brand stands up for a social issue, it’s how. Brands become culturally relevant when they genuinely connect with people through their attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. Cultural relevancy is about being truly authentic (not just pretending to be ‘real’) and storytelling is simply what makes brand and their cultural narratives work. 

Beyond question, effective storytelling speaks to the heart, not just the head. The big question is how will your brand change the narrative?

Header image by Kinal Ladha

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