Changing your brand story, for good

I've been working with a municipal client who's on a mission to shift their resource-based economy to something more sustainable. But they're struggling to attract new investors, businesses and residents. Why? Among other things, they've been branded with a negative narrative, as a bad place to live. The thing is, that narrative's not true. But they just can't shake it.

It's a story that's playing out all across North America, as small towns and cities try to embrace the new economy. Changing deeply embedded narratives like this is tough, and can take years.

The first step is to figure out where they're coming from. To do that, we ran an online narrative brand audit. And came up mostly empty. The online narrative for the town is predominantly positive. Despite that finding, at this point, most clients will stop their investigation and invest in an online marketing campaign – because it's the easiest thing to do. Sure, it might help. But as this client knows, it's not enough.

If you're faced with a negative narrative about you, your brand or your organization, you need to remember that stories start with people.

We love to tell stories to each other and often do so for deeply subconscious reasons – like making ourselves feel better, smarter or more powerful than someone else. It's really easy to start and spread negative stories about a person, place or product, especially if we think it lifts us up. "Why would you live there/buy that thing/hang out with those people? My city/product/friends are way better."

This negative storytelling is the same thing that's driving the extreme polarization that's crippling society. And, as we saw in an earlier article, it's all driven by a need for belonging.

Rather than focusing exclusively on your online narrative, you need to do 4 things to change it at the source.

    • Be curious. When someone says something negative about your brand, don't let it slide. Stop and ask them to tell you more. You don't have to accuse or correct them. Instead, pretend you're a journalist and try to find out what's behind the story they're telling. Often, you'll discover they're just repeating an unfounded claim and they'll change their story on their own.
    • Turn the tables. Develop a clear, new, positive narrative that you want to bring to life instead. If you can't tell your story clearly, how can anyone else?
    • Make it real. Talk to people and seek out positive stories that support this new narrative and bring it to life. Translate abstract concepts into real experiences and feelings to make them real and desirable.
    • Make it a party. Tell people what you're doing and why. Show them how negative stories hurt them and invite them to be part of the new, exciting and better narrative. Encourage them to share their own positive stories that support the new narrative, then celebrate and amplify those stories when they do.

Remember, everything we do is driven by our need for belonging. If people see others telling positive stories – and being rewarded for it with acceptance and love – then they will do the same. Every brand story starts with a person. If you want to change that story, you have to give that person a different story or experience to share that makes their life better.