Part 3: How "Narrative Belonging" Should Define Today’s Brands for Millennials

In the previous 2 blogs dedicated to my presentation at the Relate Live NYC conference, on October 23-25, we identified two of three theses in order for you to create a beloved brand for Millennials.  The first thesis, based off of the Millennial core belief, is that a beloved brand should have a Rigorous Demand for Excellence.  In our last blog, after looking at the components of trust, we developed thesis number two which was that a beloved brand should have Repetitive Performance in Competency and Character in order to gain the trust of Millennials.

 In this post we will identify thesis number 3 with a focus on brand.  A brand, as the father of advertising David Ogilvy described it, is “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.”  Over the last 60 years marketers have worked to create a specific perception in customers’ minds concerning the qualities and attributes of certain companies, products or services.  They took to calling this perception, “the brand.”

Having my degree in advertising and having spent time in agency life, I often think of it as the “look, tone, and feel” of a company, product or service.  How do you feel when you’re with this product or receiving this service?  That is one’s brand.

Perhaps more tactical, branding is the messaging produced by your company and product experience.

One of my favorite moments on the hit TV show “Madmen” is when protagonist Don Draper is selling his concept for the new “Carousel” by Kodak.  The scene has Kodak executives meeting with multiple advertising agencies to hear if any of them have solved how to brand Kodak’s “wheel.”  “We know it’s hard because we know wheels aren’t really seen as exciting…” one of the execs explains. Don, through his pitch, asks the executives to think deeper about the meaning behind their product.  Don sees the Kodak slide projector as a portable nostalgia generator, and he uses his own memories to sell it, from a story about his first job at a fur company to personal family photographs. “It’s not called a wheel. It’s called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.” It’s such a powerful pitch and one that resonates with both the characters in the show and the audience watching it having been called one of the greatest moments in TV history. Don, of course, was building the brand of the Carousel: the look, tone and feel of the product.

The two most important concepts of a brand are both the narrative or the story that’s being told and the feeling of belonging the customer experiences with the product. 

Science will tell you that decision-making is not based on facts and figures, but on an emotional response.  In fact, whether buying, making a decision or even teaching, storytelling and building a narrative is the most powerful tool to get someone to buy, learn or endorse a belief.

Additionally, belonging is also a core component of human nature and consequentially what it takes to make a beloved brand.  In Brené Brown’s newest book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, the overarching message is that, “true belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are.”  A beloved brand, perhaps with a bit of nostalgia or longing, allows someone to become ‘the best’ of who they are.

We buy that blue shirt that brings out the blue in our eyes, the strong coffee that powers us (while helping us give back to the world), the Warby Parker glasses that best define our face (and our rebellious attitude) or the dress that makes us as confident as we should feel all the time.  A trustworthy beloved brand shouldn’t change the customer; it should enhance the features that already exist within the customer.

Brown continues on the notion of belonging by stating, “True belonging is not something we negotiate or accomplish with others; it’s a daily practice that demands integrity and authenticity.”  Demands, Integrity, Authenticity – those sound like familiar terms!  In our last posts demand, integrity and trust were corner stones in Millennial trust-building. 

Thesis #3 – Narrative Belonging
Let’s build out the Beloved Brand triangle with thesis #3.  The final point on our triangle is narrative belonging.  Narrative Belonging is the ongoing effort by a brand to tell the story continually of how a customer that uses the brand will have a sense of belonging to the product and service that will greatly enhance the customer’s existence and experience.

Narrative belonging requires, as Brown would point out: boundaries (you respect customers’ boundaries and when you’re unsure you ask), reliability (you do what you say you’ll do), accountability (you own your mistakes and apologize), security (you don’t share information that is not yours to share), integrity (you choose what is right over what is fun, fast or easy), nonjudgment (I can ask, as a customer, for what I need without judgment), and generosity (you extend generosity to others with intentions, words, and actions).  How do you achieve these?  Through your constant story telling, interaction and creation of authentic relationships with your customers.

Brand Titans: NPR (National Public Radio)
On a communication platform 100 years old, in an industry that has become riddled with “fake news” claims in the past year and with a core mission to not be profitable, NPR (National Public Radio) has become a cult phenomenon.  Now with over $200 million in revenue and $260 million in endowment, NPR is a leader in the field of Narrative Belonging brands. Fast Company magazine recently ranked NPR as #10 in their Brands That Matter feature for “offering a safe space for quality storytelling.”

National Public Radio replaced the National Educational Radio Network on February 26, 1970, following Congressional passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. NPR aired its first broadcast in April 20, 1971, covering United States Senate hearings on the ongoing Vietnam War in Southeast Asia.  A month later, on May 3, 1971, the afternoon drive-time newscast “All Things Considered” began.

It’s not a new brand but its loyal following is growing. While overall morning news radio listenership is up 15 percent, Nielsen reports that NPR is up 46 percent. And in top markets, while commercial news radio in the afternoons gained 19 percent, NPR grew 43 percent. NPR was the Most Trusted News Service Brand and Most Loved Brand Based on the 2017 Harris Poll.  NPR received the highest equity score among a subset of brands evaluated in the News Service Brand Category. 

Now with over 41 million listeners a week, NPR is loved by its listeners because it provides insights on life and culture, authentic voices the audience may not hear anywhere else and stories that spark listener curiosity. 

There is also the phenomenon of the local “offspring” of NPR.  Not only does NPR provide national news coverage but also franchise-like distribution of its Narrative Belonging platform with local stations like VPR (Vermont Public Radio), a subset of NPR. VPR (and others) provide not only nationally syndicated programming but also puts the power back into the region with localized news too

Along with traditional journalism, NPR has been able to create something even more powerful – the sense of belonging.  Whether it’s locals providing underwriting stories of why they tune in, listener commentary on an array of topics or the “swag” bag that arrives in your mailbox if you do become a member, NPR is keen on knowing how to take care of its brand ambassadors.

The amazing thing is that NPR is not just for your parents!  The radio titan is fast-growing among younger listeners, with Morning Edition increasing listeners in the 25-to-54 age group by 26 percent, and All Things Considered up 43 percent in that coveted age bracket. As one young listener put it, “It sounds cheesy, but NPR is my intellectual soul food.”

NPR’s growing relevance with younger audiences is impressive. NPR has been revamping its news magazines, cultivating its arts coverage, and of course increased its storytelling skills creating a better user platform.  Podcasts have also been a big part of that innovation, with NPR ranking as the leading publisher, according to Podtrac. Arguably, the success of Serial, a NPR podcast, is what brought podcasting to a mass audience. In September of 2016 alone NPR podcasts had some 63 million unique downloads.

Why did I pick this brand to represent our last brand titan?  Because it is the closest we can get to pure Narrative Belonging.  NPR, through its story telling ability has created an army of faithful, every-morning-tuning-in brand lovers who not only take advantage of the product, but then turn around every quarter and fork over millions of dollars in the infamous “NPR fund drives” to keep their brand and company alive! I also like this example because it is off the beaten path.  We could have looked at Warby Parker, Starbucks, Spotify, but NPR?!  What a fun, eclectic brand to look at.  A radio station that is still relevant because of the sense of belonging.  It’s a perfect example of the power and relevance of Narrative Belonging.

One of the biggest reasons the brand is so trustworthy is that the trust gap is becoming more evident as non-news brands like Facebook and Google admit that they play some role in the fake-news epidemic. A Stanford University study recently revealed that 82% of middle school students can’t tell the difference between genuine news stories and fake ones.  That makes NPR, with its mission of creating a more informed public, even more relevant and trustworthy today than ever before.

 Advancing the Thinking: Questions to Ponder
As we complete our Beloved Brand Triangle, filling out the final point with Narrative Belonging, here are some questions to think about when looking at your own brand and company:

1.     Have we deployed the attributes of reliability, accountability, security, integrity, nonjudgment, and generosity into every inch of our business, product and service?

2.     Have we created a narrative, story or communication about how we plan to deploy Narrative Belonging to our customers?  Is our story an authentic one (real) vs. hype?

3.     How are we measuring our effectiveness with these initiatives?