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To write a winning brand story, take a page out of the agency playbook

By Lizz Kannenberg / June 18, 2019

My relationship with data is a lot like my relationship with vegetables. Over the course of my career it’s evolved from a necessary evil, to a love-hate dynamic and finally to where we are now: It’s not only integral to the health of my work as a brand storyteller, but I’ve actually learned to love it.

I’m not alone. Recent McKinsey research shows that marketers who integrate data and storytelling are able to grow revenue at twice the rate of those who keep the numbers and ideas separate. When I started my career in social strategy, data was limited and most of what we did was based on gut instinct. But as brands began creating a lot more noise on sophisticated social channels, more data became available to the smart brands willing to admit their gut feeling might not always be right.

Understanding how the data and storytelling can complement each other is the first step in creating more meaningful, nuanced and impactful stories for your brand.

Data can surprise you

I can pinpoint the exact project that made me fall in love with data. It was 2015, and I was working as an agency strategist on a government client whose sole purpose was to convince people to eat more beef. My team was tasked with creating recipe content for social and display on a seasonal basis, and we were trying to come up with an innovative approach to summer.

Now, all of our gut feelings—as well as the qualitative conversation we saw on social—revolved around the summer grilling season, as you might expect. But our data science team thought we should get creative with the data we looked at and suggested pulling Google search volume for beef topics during the summer months. You know what we found? More than a million searches during the month of July for…slow cooker recipes. Huh? Armed with data that contradicted our assumptions, we built “summer slow cooker” recipe display ads, which we got at significantly lower CPCs during the summer than anything grilling related. Looking at the data helped our content stand out and saved our client money.

In the case of the great summer slow cooker coup of 2015, we used data to direct our storytelling approach, but we still needed to rely on our gut to develop great content. That’s just one way to do it; data can also help you check your gut when the Big Idea comes first. Creativity can come from just about anywhere: from back-of-the-napkin scribblings to that bolt of inspiration that hits you in the shower. You may have a great concept, but it’s worth your time to look at the available data related to your audience and their affinities before you move forward with execution.

Sometimes the simplest data is the most powerful

I think a lot of us who are tasked with brand storytelling and creative concepts get intimidated by the sheer volume of data and myriad ways to interpret it. But even if you don’t have a data science background (or team), you can still find inspiration in the data generated by real human behavior.

One of my favorite examples of this is Axe’s late-2016 rebranding campaign, Find Your Magic. I worked on Axe early in my career, and you may recall that their previous brand positioning was rooted in the idea that even geeky guys can drive beautiful women wild if they wear the right body spray (“Double pits to chesty,” anyone?). But with Find Your Magic, Axe put the onus on the guys themselves to find and embrace the unique qualities that made them special and desirable.

How did one of the most provocative brands on the planet inform such a dramatic brand pivot? With data, of course. Axe partnered with gender research firm Promundo and the United States Institute of Peace to look at how cultural expectations of young men and boys are damaging their confidence and affecting their development. Axe even used real world behavioral data, such as Google searches that completed the phrase “Is it okay for guys to…,” to reinforce the message that there is no one way to be “a man.” Axe’s new brand message: Being comfortable in your own skin is a key ingredient in changing the definition of masculinity.

Look beyond the data that’s in front of you

It has never surprised me that pound for pound, some of the best brand stories come out of data-mindful creative agencies. While in-house teams probably have a leg up on understanding their specific brand’s audience, agencies have accumulated millions of data points to work with across tens or hundreds of different clients’ target audiences. The more overlapping data points marketers have to work with, the stronger their brand stories will be.

For instance, millennials have been a focus audience for brands from beer and fashion to hotels and cooking appliances. A beer brand’s internal marketing team has a lot of data on the beer preferences of its particular slice of the millennial audience, which is certainly valuable. But an agency that has multiple clients who want to reach millennials, across a range of industries and verticals, has the distinct advantage of a wealth of quantitative and qualitative information about that audience’s preferences. Their opinions about beer can be augmented with data on their feelings about music, travel, entertainment and more to create a richer, more complete picture of their needs and desires.

So take a page out of the agency book and go beyond what you find in your brand research. Implement a social listening strategy to capture the conversation around a topic of interest, even if specific brand names aren’t mentioned. You can also use social listening to forecast trends within your target audience, research sentiment around a particular industry or product category and even find new audiences for your message.

All numbers tell a story

Data drives so many of the decisions we as marketers make. But it shouldn’t be the only input to your brand and creative work. Great stories are still a combination of quantitative data, qualitative insights and good old gut feeling. So use the data available to you to set you on the right path, augment what you already know and validate your big ideas. Because for modern marketers, truly groundbreaking storytelling is now, more than ever, a numbers game.

This piece is part of our series on data-driven marketing, running in June 2019, in which our experts explore the keys to developing a team and strategic approach grounded in data. Read part 1 and part 2 here.

Lizz Kannenberg

Lizz Kannenberg

Lizz Kannenberg is the Director of Brand Strategy at Sprout Social. Kannenberg is a career strategist and creative lead for social content. She has developed and executed social content campaigns for CPG, automotive, alc/bev, government and lifestyle clients by creating credible, compelling conversations between brands and communities. Offline she can usually be found playing bass in an indie rock band or out exploring with her husband and young son.
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