Interview with CRM Ireland

Gerard Tannam, the managing partner of Islandbridge suggests why stories work.

“Great marketing is storytelling, and if you’ve been to a Broadway show lately, you’ll notice that audience participation is discouraged. That doesn’t mean that great playwrights don’t listen! They do. They, like great marketers, listen relentlessly. They engage in offline conversations constantly. They poll and they do censuses and most important, they have true conversations with small groups of real people. But THEN, they tell a story.” – Seth Godin

The power of storytelling, the willingness to listen to and tell stories, is increasingly being used in the area of branding and organisational behaviour both to understand how people think and to get them working together. While Seth Godin has written several books on the subject its something that Irish branding companies are only now beginning to understand. One of the first Irish companies to develop this mix of storytelling with branding is Islandbridge.

Gerard Tannam, the managing partner of Islandbridge suggests why stories work: “A story explains the unexplainable in that it makes sense of things in a way that’s easy to take on board. Without a story all you often have is a complicated list of episodes or details. While everyone tells their own stories, these stories are usually individual takes on several basic types, such as the Cinderella story or the David & Goliath story.”

Indeed, we hear that all stories have, despite their boundless variety, a limited number of narrative-arches and although the individual details may change, there is apparently only a certain number of stories out there.

“I’m always amused when people complain that Posh Spice can’t sing.” said Gerard, providing a contemporary example, “there she is, a typical working-class girl catapulted to the top despite a lack of inherent talent who then marries the most eligible male celebrity in Britain – and she can scarcely sing. But that’s the whole attraction! If she could sing it wouldn’t be a Cinderella story and others who come from a similar place and lack real singing talent couldn’t imagine that her story and theirs might be the same. In the story of the girl who can’t sing, they’re free to imagine that one day they too, like Posh Spice, might marry a prince.”

So, in a sense, the marketing of Posh Spice is done to fit in with an existing story type that people already identify with. In this case Cinderella. But Gerard goes on to discuss Superquinn’s story, a supermarket chain that impressed him while growing up in Crumlin. Superquinn, Gerard argues, was the supermarket that managed to succeed when all of the signs were that it should have failed, given the high rates of unemployment in the area. Yet in providing a certain level of service, such as the umbrella on rainy days or the complimentary flower on Mother’s Day, they managed to get a loyalty from customers who could probably have stretched their shopping budget a little further at Quinnsworth.

Superquinn realized that they could draw customers by making their story part of the community’s story. That collective story says that despite the difficult circumstances of the time, real service and quality is within reach of those struggling to make ends meet. “Quinnsworth might have been cheaper, but people went to Superquinn for the way Feargal Quinn made them feel.”

So, how does Islandbridge incorporate the power of storytelling into their branding process? Among the branding stories told on the Islandbridge site, I was particularly taken with the example of Go! Kids! which relied on input from the staff of the Westport Woods and Yeats Country Hotels to redefine the brand of their family holiday packages.

“It was clear from what the staff were saying and from the comments and stories provided by their visitors that their family holidays generated hugely fond memories for parents and their kids”, recalled Gerard. “But the hotels didn’t have much confidence in that – all they saw was that more and more competitors were providing family holidays too and the market was shrinking. We also learned that parents were beginning to treat the kids club as a baby-sitting service. Parents would just drop their kids at the facilities and head off. This was undermining the original business model, which aimed to provide an opportunity for whole families to enjoy their holiday together.

However, by having staff tell us what were the more memorable and enjoyable aspects of what they had to offer we were able to look on the positive. By developing the brand in terms of story we were able to avoid producing a report that was critical of the client – our focus is on strengths rather than weaknesses: playing to your strengths and managing around your weaknesses. This is very important. By working with the client in this way we were able to see what was working and what wasn’t and helped us find a way of getting our clients to discover their own brand and play to its strengths.

I should say that when we approach a client initially we wouldn’t explain it to them in the way we have discussed it here, in a philosophical or abstract way. That would probably put them off. What we have to do though is find a way of asking questions; the right questions properly posed so they don’t feel undermined, and then hopefully draw out the answers, both the good stuff and the not-so-good stuff. Explaining the nuts and bolts of branding is not necessary when providing the branding for a company, just as it’s not necessary for a car-owner to know everything about what goes on under the bonnet.”

Talking to a client about the power of storytelling in developing their brand can seem a very intangible way of making a profit. The proof though, is in the increase in their profit margin. I asked Gerard, if his clients can see how Islandbridge’s branding is making a difference.

“Yes”, he said, “often they’ve seen double digit growth. There is one case we talk about on our site . An auto tools distributor, Pace Marketing had a long history bringing in various branded lines into the country. They decided to develop their own line. McAnax, which they would distribute in parallel to existing brand names. The launch of the brand saw increased growth for the company by 40% on lines which included the new brand. This is an example of what the branding and marketing expert John Jansch of Duct Tape Marketing means when he says ‘good brands find a market’. If the brand makes sense to people, often a lot of people, they will want to buy it.”

It’s interesting also to see that Gerard has joined in the online conversation. He has a blog (open-heart branding) and regularly podcasts(a brief word on brand) . “I believe [blogging and podcasting] are going to be very important in the future and I thought it a good thing to get in there early”. Indeed this seems like another area where Gerard and Islandbridge seem to be ahead of the game; joining the conversation and telling their story. “Relatively few businesses in this part of the world have really got involved yet in this area”, Gerard tells me as we wrap our conversation, “so we’ll have to wait and see if the industry as a whole takes advantage of this area of great opportunity”