Associate Dean, Digital Innovation; McCormick Foundation Chair of Technology; Clinical Professor of Marketing; Director of the Center for Research in Technology & Innovation
Professor Emeritus of Marketing
Every brand has a story to tell. But consumers only have so much time, energy, and attention. You will need to find a story that cuts through our collective “story fatigue” and find creative ways to deploy it.
On this episode, Kellogg professor Mohan Sawhney discusses how transmedia storytelling is integral to brand-building.
In the world of brands, Nike is a master storyteller. Nike introduced its blockbuster “Just Do It” campaign in 1988 with an ad featuring marathoner Walt Stack.
Prof. Sawhney is a fan of this epic collaboration between Red Bull, Samsung TV, and the Brazilian skateboarder Pedro Barros. Watch the original video here.
Then, go behind the scenes of the campaign in this facebook video and this Redbull video.
Toyota had a winner in its Auto-Biography campaign, where customers submitted true stories involving their Toyotas, which were then animated and released as ads. It’s a great example of brands using their own customers as storytelling fodder. Here’s an example.
Personalization can make brand stories even more effective. Sawhney points to Valspar as a brand that has done a good job providing consumers with personalized attention. You can check out a desktop version of their free color-consulting service here.
Few brands have gone as big into transmedia storytelling as Lionsgate to market its Hunger Games trilogy. In 2022, a full decade after the first movie in the trilogy was released, many aspects of this rich world are no longer present. But you can read about the interactive Facebook game here. And you can still watch many of the Inside Capitol Couture videos, created in collaboration with Instagram stars, to get a flavor of the world-building.
The first season of Insight Unpacked primarily features Kellogg faculty contributors to the book Kellogg on Branding in a Hyperconnected World. This book is available for purchase here. In addition, you can read three free excerpts on Kellogg Insight.
Prof. Paul Earle Jr.’s chapter on finding the right name for your brand.
Prof. Bobby Calder’s chapter on using design thinking to find a design that appeals to consumers on an unconscious level.
Prof. Mohan Sawhney on transmedia storytelling for brands.
[SOUNDMARK: A Kellogg Insight Production]
Jessica LOVE: Mohan Sawhney is a clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg, as well as the associate dean of digital innovation. He teaches classes and regularly speaks to major companies about exciting NEW possibilities in marketing and technology. So he knows all about how companies can use AI and cutting-edge online platforms. But as he will tell you, when it comes to branding, even the fanciest technology is worth nothing if you don’t have something else, too. Something simple and timeless: A great story.
Mohan SAWHNEY: Stories are archetypal and universal. Stories transcend culture, they transcend language, they transcend time. And stories stick. We remember stories.
LOVE: Which is why the companies that have successfully put new media or new technologies to use have always kept their story at the center. Successful social media influencers are constantly carving out a narrative that’s central to their appeal… whether it’s the business guru on her long journey to the corner office… or the globetrotting couple who quit their jobs to travel the world, and are now living in a breezy, carefree happily-ever-after. Or take the world of podcasts…remember the breakout hit Serial? Listeners tuned into it every week not just to learn about the facts of a murder case, but to accompany the reporters they’d come to care about on a winding journey, full of twists and turns.
But this also illustrates the problem brands face. In the hyperconnected world, it’s easy to feel INUNDATED with the sheer number of stories always coming at us.
SAWHNEY: Right? So what ends up happening is there’s a lot of clutter and very few brands actually get through and rise above the clutter and the crowd.
LOVE: Really, you can’t talk about “brand clutter” without talking about “story clutter.” Or, as Sawhney calls it, “story fatigue.” Everyone has a story to tell… yet we as consumers only have so much time, energy, and attention! Which Sawhney thinks is one of the greatest challenges facing people who build brands today.
SAWHNEY: So the response that customers have to story fatigue is to tune out, just like we tune out advertising. And what we will do is we will allocate our scarce and valuable attention to stories that resonate with us, to brands that speak to us in a way that makes a difference, you know? So I think the antidote to story fatigue is story relevance, right? It’s story empathy.
LOVE: But in the digital world, a lot of brands get this wrong! After all, with so many new platforms and possibilities to experiment with, it can be tempting to think that simply being ON a hot new platform, or just USING cutting-edge tools, is enough to take your brand to the next level. But it’s NOT. Sawhney thinks of building a successful brand in the 21st century kind of like crafting a painting.
SAWHNEY: Our definition of what’s a beautiful painting and what you want to produce remains the same. You still want to make a great painting, except what you have now is a million colors and thousands of paintbrushes. So you just have more tools, more granular tools, more powerful tools. But at the end of the day, the fundamentals remain the same, that great brands tell great stories. It’s just the way we can do this now is much richer.
LOVE: Welcome to Insight Unpacked: Extraordinary Brands and How to Build Them, a podcast mini-series from Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. I’m your host, Jess Love.
Throughout our series, we’ve talked about how to define your purpose as a brand; how to position yourself in the market by deciding things like who your target audience should be and what sets you apart from other brands that are like you. And we’ve looked at how to craft a name and a design that tell people, pretty quickly, what you’re all about.
On this, the fourth episode of our five-part series…we talk stories. In a world where every brand has a story to tell, how can you tell one that stands out? Where do great brand stories come from, and what makes them work? And finally, with a plethora of new tools at your disposal, how should these technologies fit into your brand’s storytelling mission?
Mohan Sawhney explored these questions in a chapter he wrote for the book Kellogg on Branding in a Hyperconnected World. And on this episode, he’ll do double duty for us. First, we’ll hear a brief refresher on brand storytelling, and what goes into a great brand story in general. Then, he’ll explain how digital tools can help make your brand’s story more powerful… but only if they’re deployed the right way.
LOVE: So, to begin with, what makes stories so useful for branding? For one, as Sawhney said a few minutes ago, there’s something primitive and universal about stories. In fact, there are just a handful of archetypes that almost every great story fits into.
SAWHNEY: For example, one of the story archetypes is the hero’s quest…so Lord of the Rings, or King Arthur and the Holy Grail, and Star Wars. Many of these are about the hero’s quest.
LOVE: Another archetype is “rags to riches”… think Cinderella, or Slumdog Millionaire. Then there’s “overcoming the monster”... which is David and Goliath, Jurassic Park, pretty much any horror movie.
SAWHNEY: When we hear a story that belongs to one of these archetypes, we are hard-wired—nobody need to tell us “this is an ‘overcoming-the-monster.’” We grew up with this stuff. So it’s sort of like, if you can connect your brand to one of these story archetypes, then it creates a much deeper and more visceral and a more emotional response from customers. Brands can lasso stories that we know are going to resonate. So for instance, overcoming the monster is a story archetype, right? A brand that has sort of latched onto or lassoed this archetype is Nike. Because Nike is all about overcoming the monster that’s inside you, which is your limitations, and your sloth or your laziness. So “Just do it,” and the whole sort of story that Nike tells is about overcoming the monster.
LOVE: So the value of telling a story around your brand is no secret… but how are you supposed to fit your brand into one of these story archetypes? Once again, it comes down to the same idea we explored in the very first episode of this series: your brand purpose.
SAWHNEY: Go back to what your brand stands for, what your mission and purpose is, connect that with a passion or pain point that your customers have. And once you make that connection in a powerful way through a story, now your brand becomes a vehicle to overcome that problem.
LOVE: For instance, say you’re a healthcare brand whose brand purpose is helping people enjoy their lives more fully. In that case, the hero in your story might be the person trying to do something they love… and the obstacle you zero in on might be a disease that’s getting in the way. For instance, the migraines that keep an artist from painting, or the severe arthritis that keeps a father from walking his daughter down the aisle. In those kinds of stories, the pain itself can become the “villain” in the story… And you can show that villain being vanquished by the hero... with help, of course, from your company’s drug.
Or, you can develop a story that ties your brand’s purpose to a passion. If your purpose is to facilitate adventure, for instance, you might connect that to extreme sports... say, a story about pushing new limits in skateboarding. That’s what Red Bull did when it launched a video campaign featuring a famous Brazilian skateboarder. In this brand narrative, fans watched to see if our hero could pull off death-defying moves. And he did so in a skatepark modeled after international landmarks... Built by Red Bull, of course.
PEDROS: We’re jumping over the New York buildings, which is pretty much the scariest part.
LOVE: So brand stories work by connecting to customer passions, or pain points. The challenge, then, is to figure out, what is the story that’s going to do that most effectively for my brand? Where do brands get their stories? Sawhney says there are a number of places to look. One rich, but often overlooked source: employees working behind the scenes at your brand.
SAWHNEY: Imagine being able to hear the story of the creator of the Xbox, or the guy who’s building the largest Azure deployment in the world. I want to know what’s behind my product, who built the GE aircraft engine and who’s building the next generation turbine or whatever. Your engineers, your R&D employees—very powerful fountainhead for stories.
LOVE: Another fountainhead: your customers. Sawhney really likes this example from Toyota. In the late 2000s, certain Toyota vehicles were discovered to have defects that made them suddenly and unpredictably accelerate. Hundreds of people died or were injured as a result. So in the aftermath, the company had to think very carefully about the story it wanted to project.
SAWHNEY: Toyota realized that if we told people, “Hey, our cars don’t suck and there’s nothing wrong with them,” nobody would believe them, they had a credibility issue. But they realized there were 40 million people who were already loyal to Toyota and owned Toyota and had stories about Toyotas that had been a family heirloom, and so on. So they created a campaign which is called Auto-Biography. It’s “tell your own story of your car.” They invited stories from customers. And they got thousands of stories, very passionate stories. And then they took those stories and converted it into campaign.
TOYOTA AD MONTAGE: Everyone hates driving in Los Angeles … 800 to 900 miles a week on our Corolla…
SAWHNEY: So customers are a very powerful source of stories.
LOVE: In past episodes, we’ve talked about when it makes sense to reposition a brand. As you’ll recall, the overall advice is that complete overhauls can be risky. As Alice Tybout, an emeritus professor of marketing at Kellogg, recommended, rather than try an overhaul…
TYBOUT: You’re better to figure out how you can be what you are more effectively.
LOVE: And the same goes for changing your brand’s STORY. She says that the brands that have successfully changed their stories haven’t reinvented the wheel. Rather, they found the parts of their stories that were working, and reoriented them in some way. For example, Tybout thinks of Axe, the men’s fragrance and skincare brand. Early on, the Axe brand became known for being aggressively (and stereotypically) macho. Most of their ads followed a young man putting on Axe body spray to entice attractive women.
TYBOUT: Axe has long been seen as a brand for young men to get girls, very simply. But, young men are becoming more sensitive to the complexity of the current world. Traditional gender roles are softening a bit. And so, more recently Axe’s campaign has involved asking questions like is it okay for a guy to ...
AXE AD: Is it OK to be skinny? Is it OK to not like sports?
LOVE: This rebranding effort was seen by many as a major success. And Tybout thinks that that’s because Axe didn’t fundamentally change their narrative. The basic brand story is still about young men who want to be seen as desirable and many… and, of course, Axe is still what helps them achieve that goal. Axe has simply brought that story into the modern world.
TYBOUT: It’s reflecting an evolution in what it means to be a teenage boy or a young man making the transition to manhood these days.
LOVE: With our new podcast at Kellogg Insight, we were trying to do something similar… to update OUR story while keeping what was already working. If you remember, we talked a bit about this on the first episode. So what was working? Well, our existing podcasts were definitely tapping into our faculty’s expertise. But we wanted to create another podcast with a new goal of going much deeper into a given topic. We wanted to give ourselves the time to learn about many dimensions of this topic, from multiple faculty, each bringing their own research or experiences to bear.
And to take this idea of “going deep” a step further, this season, we decided to use ourselves as part of the story, to show how a brand can, well, rebrand themselves.
LOVE: Alright, we’ve gone over what good brand storytelling looks like in general… Now, what about strategies to get those stories in front of people’s eyes?
This is where new technology comes in, and it can either make or break your message.
Sawhney says this is often where good brands with strong stories go astray.
SAWHNEY: Just because there is a new way of engaging customers doesn’t mean people do it well.
LOVE: For instance. When a new social media platform becomes popular, brands will often scramble to jump on it without considering whether that platform can actually help them tell their story better. Most recently, as TikTok was exploding in the U.S., some brands struggled—and still are struggling—with how, exactly, they should utilize it. And no surprise, many failed to gain much traction.
So what did these brands do wrong? Sawhney’s answer is simple… they got so excited about the platform that they failed to think about how to fit their story into this new venue. And in that way, they failed to think about the customer using that platform.
SAWHNEY: Engagement marketing has to begin with asking yourself how can I provide content to my customers that is relevant, that is timely, that is useful that either helps them solve a problem or it helps them pursue a passion.
LOVE: Which should sound familiar! “Help people pursue a passion or solve a problem”… That’s the same thing that Sawhney said a few minutes ago, the same thing that great brand storytelling has always done. But on TikTok, too many brands forgot to ask why users were coming to this platform, rather than just staying on Instagram or YouTube or Snapchat. And so rather than offering the kind of unique content that users love about TikTok, with viral concepts, snappy editing, clever use of music, many brands simply recycled content from other platforms. Which didn’t really give users a reason to engage on TikTok. That brand story wasn’t getting through to people.
Sawhney says brands can effectively leverage technology to tell their story in a number of ways. For one, technology allows brands to tell stories that are participatory.
SAWHNEY: This is unique, that customers can actually now be part of the story.
For example, the paint company Valspar created an app called Valspar Connect. And while, yeah, the idea is to get people to buy their paint, it puts customers at the center of their brand story by putting them in touch with live design consultants that can digitally help them pick colors for whatever it is they are painting.
LOVE: Another way to reach people with your story? Make it personal.
SAWHNEY: Personalized. Which means I can reach a specific person, and I know who’s clicking on the website, whose cookie it is, and whose Facebook profile I’m speaking to. So what you can do, therefore, is you can be extremely targeted with digital.
LOVE: Technology can also help you tell people your story a lot more often.
SAWHNEY: You can actually engage with consumers and customers over a much longer duration.
LOVE: This is important, Sawhney explains, because stories take time to seep into a person’s consciousness. Persistent storytelling helps brands do that by reinforcing the message multiple times, in slightly different ways. For instance, a brand might share one version of its story through social messaging, a slightly different version on a podcast ad, and a third through an app or online community.
Here is Sawhney’s last piece of advice on using tech to tell your story. Be pervasive.
SAWHNEY: Pervasiveness is the idea that it’s everywhere!
LOVE: That is, brands are now able to reach consumers not just during the time when they’re watching TV or at the store, but any time of the day, in any physical place, thanks to social media and online advertising.
Each of these elements by itself can be useful. But when you combine them all, they empower brands to tell a whole new kind of story, what’s known as “transmedia storytelling.”
SAWHNEY: Transmedia is a multilayered and multifaceted story experience that unfolds over time and progressively draws you in. But it is an integrated story experience that unfolds over multiple channels.
LOVE: If this is all sounding a little complicated… Simply put, transmedia storytelling is using various media channels to tell different components of a brand’s story.
SAWHNEY: Let me give an example of transmedia, which was used for the marketing of the Hunger Games franchise.
LOVE: As you may know, the Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian country that’s divided into twelve districts, each with its own culture and characteristics. So their transmedia campaign essentially built parts of this world, and allowed users to inhabit them, and take on different roles in this fictional society.
SAWHNEY: So you can on Facebook go in a sign up for a district. You get an ID card, so you can now be a member of the community. You could be part of the resistance and you were fighting against The Capitol. They also created for The Capitol something called Capitol Couture, which was — In the Hunger Games movie, there was a point where they do a fashion contest. So, they actually created Capitol Couture, which is a fashion magazine on Tumblr with real designers and real merchandise.
CLIP: We’re here because I’m doing three looks for Capitol Couture. It’s fashion meets technology meets Hunger Games meets… me!
SAWHNEY: So basically, they used each of these channels to actually create a very rich community experience that people participated in for months—six, seven months before the movie started. So, interestingly, the movie became just one aspect of this whole story-world experience.
LOVE: The whole thing utilized different forms of media in all those different ways we talked about earlier. It allowed fans to participate in the movie’s story, it personalized fans’ experience, because they got to inhabit a unique identity, and the length and pervasiveness of the campaign made it so that the brand’s target demographic really couldn’t miss coming across some aspect of this world. All of which might explain why it worked so well.
SAWHNEY: People really jumped onto this. They participated. So there was a passionate group of fans to which this was targeted. And the Hunger Games became one of the most successful franchises, grossing $2.2 billion across the five movies that were created.
LOVE: Obviously, not everyone has the budget to build out an entire universe. But it shows just how creative you can get when you leverage different types of media to tell different aspects of your brand’s story.
LOVE: All of these inspiring examples left us at Kellogg Insight wondering… should we be doing more to promote our new podcast brand? Should we tie it into some kind of video series, or accompanying blog? Should we invite users to participate in some innovative way? We brought these questions to Sawhney… who told us to back up.
SAWHNEY: So, I think that starting with “should I do a video, should I do a…”, that’s the wrong question. You’re putting the cart before the horse. What you need to start with is what’s my story. What’s the story you want to tell? Then, you figure out what platforms are best equipped to articulate that story in the most effective way, right? So, we’ve got to begin there.
LOVE: So…we did back up. No need to create an alternative world…at least not yet. But we did decide it also made sense to put together a page on our site where you can actually see some of the materials that we and our faculty have been referencing throughout the podcast. Because one thing podcasts aren’t good at is presenting visuals. So you can check that page out on our site at kell.gg/unpacked.
LOVE: So if you’ve been following the podcast thus far, you know what it takes to give your brand a real chance of standing out! You’ve carved out a clear brand position, dreamt up a perfect name and design, and used digital tools, CAREFULLY, to deploy it in the world. So… the big question… is all of this working? How do you know? And what do you do if it’s NOT?
Next time, on the final episode of the first season of Insight Unpacked: A Kellogg expert explains how to figure out if your brand is hitting its mark.
Julie HENNESSY: Stop being so obsessed with what you’re saying, and pay attention to what consumers are saying.
LOVE: Plus, we check in with our faculty to see how we did building this new podcast brand. That’s next time, on the final episode of the first season of Insight Unpacked: Extraordinary Brands and How to Build Them.
LOVE: We’ll be back with the next episode of Insight Unpacked in a week… But while you’re waiting, you can check out the ads and brands we mentioned on our website at kell.gg/unpacked. The page has also got related reading if you want to take a deeper dive into the world of branding. Alright, thanks!
This episode of Insight Unpacked was written by Jake Smith, Laura Pavin and Jess Love. It was produced by Laura Pavin, Jess Love, Jake Smith, Emily Stone, Fred Schmalz , Maja Kos, Blake Goble, and Kevin Bailey. It was mixed by Andrew Meriwether. Special thanks to Mohan Sawhney. As a reminder, you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, or our website. If you like this show, please leave us a review or rating. That helps new listeners find us.