August 25, 2021
I took a course by the famed NYU Professor Scott Galloway on strategy last year. According to Professor Galloway, one of the defining tenets for building businesses with potential trillion-dollar valuations is “visionary storytelling”. The ability of a company to craft and articulate a bold and visionary narrative and consistently demonstrate progress against that narrative in an all-encompassing way can unleash value that is exponentially more than the sum of its parts.
The stories we tell
It might sound like stating the obvious, so here is a case in point. Does the name “Martin Eberhard” sound familiar without an attempt to google it? Chances are it isn’t to most. Martin is the co-founder of an iconic automobile company out to change not just an entire industrial complex but change the world. Tesla. I bring this up to elucidate how Elon Musk has come to embody and personify the brand and what that has meant for Tesla. A business that really struggled for the first decade of its existence and is now the most valuable automotive brand globally, not far from that trillion-dollar valuation.
Among many firsts, Tesla went direct to consumer, unprecedented for the largest auto market globally, circumventing the entire distribution-via-dealership model while spending zero dollars on advertising. By comparison, General Motors was spending US$5.5 billion on advertising in 2013 alone. By taking complete ownership of the buyer journeys, Tesla could curate and elevate the car buying experience to one of buying into a vision, a better future.
Another phenomenon integral of this storytelling. The cult of Tesla. Unlikely that the name “Bonnie Norman” will ring a bell for most either. One of the very first customers, Bonnie, has owned every model of Tesla since the Roadster. Since its inception, she has been one of the most vocal fans, evangelizing the brand, moderating user forums, defending it against critics, and providing vital user feedback that helped shape the present-day Tesla narrative. Most brands can only aspire to have fans so devout that they can lend a narrative near theological reverence in the public discourse. One genuine fan is far more valuable than an army of paid influencers and millions in paid media.
Transcending the medium
The choice of media matters more than the story, as we marketers can attest to. This is just why this is as much a reflection on technology and the dizzying speed at which it is transforming the stories we tell and those we are told. The pandemic acted as a catalyst without a doubt. At the onset of the lockdowns, most brands were still trying to retrofit the analogue world into a digital avatar and believed that was all there was to digital transformation.
Fifteen colleagues brainstorming the next product iteration in a conference room can never be the same as many faces on a screen interacting over Zoom. Just why startups like Shindig, Remotion and Whereby and the recently released Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms are now trying to make the two experiences converge in a digitally native way. Advances in augmented and virtual reality may someday make us more present in our digital embodiments.
Still, until then, we all continue to care about a connection that we call human. And while most of us have done well to adjust to these remote settings, millennials who are far more cybernetically comfortable in their skin have spent billions of hours consumed in the digital-first virtual worlds of Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox. They create and manipulate digital worlds with ease unbeknownst to my generation.
At the same time, physically being in a conference room with dozens of coworkers right now may require another learning curve for those of us who have been working remotely for months. To make our brand narratives come alive across this shifting continuum of media is well worth trying.
Even though most of us realize how the law of diminishing returns applies to the dopamine hits derived from social media engagement, we find ourselves more entrenched in the virtual spaces as escape mechanisms amidst the pandemic.
TikTok continues to be the most downloaded app globally, while consumption of content using our mobile devices continues to hit new highs. This is at a time when the dominant social networks are becoming more similar than distinct. Snapchat has Spotlight like Instagram Reels while Twitter has Spaces, Facebook has Rooms to take on the audio upstart Clubhouse, and everyone has Stories.
I never thought I’d see images of cute dogs on LinkedIn or professional leadership lessons on Facebook, but here we are in the pandemic-induced reality. To articulate our brand narrative in a way that is native to the platform and unintrusive to the community is crucial.
And new communal virtual social spaces are gathering unprecedented momentum. Twitch and Discord for the eclectic communities of interest and the gamers and Substack, Patreon and OnlyFans for the discerning who seek their own path to consuming content developed and curated by creators they like, liberated from the algorithms, the filter bubbles and echo chambers that marketers grapple with each day.
No surprise, then, that Reddit, buoyed by its recent round of funding and a US$10 billion valuation, is now introducing a TikTok-like video discovery feature. Marketers can either play catch-up with the changing algorithms and find relevance in virtual places their consumers congregate in or find a way to be transcendent and insert themselves in stories already being shared by the humans on these platforms.
Agreed that not all brands have a story as compelling as Tesla’s, but we should never stop trying, trying to elevate the story and trying to tell it in compelling and authentic ways. From trying to find hacks to run our programmatic campaigns in the “post-cookie world” to discovering the real North Star for our respective brands. It is how we obsess over small things that matter most. How do we painfully curate every touch in the buyer journey? How do we instill trust in our relationship with our consumers with an ethos that withstands the evolution in technologies and regulations? How do we curate experiences that are meaningful during these times with genuine empathy? How do we serve content that makes our consumers smarter about their choices? How do we be more human in this digital world?
I am in the same boat as most marketing leaders, trying to grapple with these questions every day, and I am far from finding any silver bullets. Test, iterate, learn, repeat. Just why I fell in love with this discipline, where you can never stop being a learner above all.
Rahul has over eighteen years’ experience in B2B marketing, account management and consulting. Currently leading the global marketing at DOCOMO Digital, the international payments business of NTT DOCOMO, part of the 3rd-largest telecom group globally. Before joining DOCOMO Digital, Rahul served in multiple leadership roles at Mercer for over a decade, in India and in Singapore. Rahul is passionate about brand purpose, digital storytelling and human-centred design thinking. Rahul recently completed a part-time Master’s program in digital media management from HyperIsland. He has been recognised as one of the top 50 marketers in 2016 by CMO Asia and by LinkedIn as a social selling expert CMO.
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