Digital transformation, while two steps forward for marketing and mankind, has been arguably a giant step back for brands.

The seismic cultural shift initiated by digital media and personal devices opened the door for an explosion of new entertainment channels, technologies and consumption behaviors.

But it also meant increased media fragmentation and the loss of a controlled, linear consumer journey.

So while opportunities to create compelling and innovative content have grown exponentially – so has competition for consumer attention.

Initially brands believed the solution was a hard sell – turning content into nothing more than thinly-veiled advertisements.

But consumers weren’t buying it. Overtly branded material was void of authenticity – essentially the cardinal sin of content.

So brands shifted their strategies in the extreme opposite direction, striving to make every piece of content look, feel and act just like any other type of content their audience loved to consume online – with minimal to no branding whatsoever.

Entertainment value, star power and new technologies all became top priorities to help tell stories like the best of them, resulting in more of a battle of budgets rather than a battle of brands.

This overcorrection has led to content that continues to push the limits of creativity and innovation, but often fails to deliver on its original promise: Getting consumers to care about and connect with your brand.

As Ann Green from Kantar Millward Brown puts it, “Great storytelling is not a vanity exercise; it must be harnessed for the purpose of the brand.”

In the age of digital transformation, how can you ensure you’re building a brand with your content – not just a reel?

  • Own a clear story and mission
  • Make sure it resonates with your audience
  • Integrate that narrative into every facet of your digital strategy

Your story is what you stand for

The pursuit of a unique brand identity begins with establishing the specific space, environment or conversation you want to own or be a part of.

This will be easier for some brands than others, as many products or services lend themselves to a space naturally. Think outdoor retailer Patagonia and their brand mission of environmental conservatism.

Others may need to look to their company values to establish a clear narrative. As a fast food chain, Chipotle could’ve told a number of stories. But with their commitment to “seeking out the very best ingredients possible — raised with respect for animals, farmers and the environment,” their brand story became one of integrity.

They’re now known as a company who cares about the food they serve, where that food comes from and the people they serve it to.

The ideal is for your brand to stand for something and to believe in it so strongly that consumers want to believe in you.

Keep in mind if that in today’s age of peer recommendations, social media callouts and aggressive competition, if you don’t establish and tell your own story someone else will tell it for you. Or worse, no one will be talking about you at all.

Make someone else the star

Once you’re clear on your brand story, ensuring that it resonates with your audience is a whole different story… literally. Truly transformative brand storytellers understand that consumers want be a part of the stories they tell. Microsoft’s Miri Rodriguez may have put it best:

“Customers react [best] to brand stories [when] they see themselves in the allegory. They are immersed into the narrative and connect to the brand experience. They see themselves as a partner, not a consumer and this adds value and authenticity to their individual experience.”

To execute this well, however, is a bit of a plot twist. Because the best “brand stories” may not even be about the brand at all. They reflect the DNA of the brand without hitting people over the head with brand messaging.

Sound confusing? Let’s look at the case of Dick’s Sporting Goods and their involvement and sponsorship of the Sports Emmy-winning digital documentary film, “We Could Be Kings.” The film featured two rival Philadelphia high school football teams who were forced to combine after drastic budget cuts and how they eventually learned to work together, both on and off the field.

By getting out of the way and letting the real heroes of the story take center stage, Dick’s was able to tell a story that not only resonated with their audience and the greater sports industry, but also reinforced their own brand message that “sports make people better.”

All the world’s a stage

Because your audience now interacts with your content in a growing variety of contexts, it’s more important than ever to build stories across multiple channels that ladder up to one consistent, concise and compelling brand mission.

Advancements in digital tech like AI, automation, virtual and augmented reality means brands will have to face the growing challenge of deciding which channels lead to the best customer experience, and how to weave a consistent brand story across each of them.

First brands need to evaluate the strengths of each channel and how they can be best used to tell their story. You don’t want to just repurpose the same content across every channel. Instead identify parts of the story that can be told most effectively on each platform. For instance, Facebook is an excellent stage for more polished and produced content i.e. TV spots, blog articles, press releases, etc. Whereas Instagram allows brands to pull back the curtain a bit and let real people and places shine. Instagram Stories in particular create a more unplugged, authentic experience that feels spontaneous and special for your audience – especially with their limited lifespan.

Microsoft CMO, Jeff Marcoux, put it best during a panel at SXSW when he said, “Omni-media storytelling lets you create different entry points into your brand’s story, allowing the audience to go deeper into the narrative at different points.”

Of course to do this brands need an in-depth understanding of their audience – who they’re looking to reach and which platforms make the most sense to reach them.

Spoiler alert: for many brands it may not always be the flashiest, sexiest mediums. Warby Parker gets creative with their annual reports, infusing them with a ton of brand personality and integrating an interactive component for readers. Remember, every touchpoint is an opportunity to tell your story.

Part of what helps Warby Parker infuse so much personality into their written material is a strong brand voice. Working hard to establish and maintain a consistent voice, tone and personality will make it much easier for brands to ensure their content is always on-brand, no matter the channel.

The same goes for a brand’s visual language. Maintaining a consistent look and feel with the colors, typography, icons, design elements and photography your brand uses will allow your audience to easily recognize your content across channels.

And lastly, in order to ensure your story sticks and stands the test of time you’ve got to spread it. Make your content uber-shareable with social share buttons, SEO optimization and, in cases where they’re applicable and authentic, hashtags. Consider also maximizing the reach of your story through partnerships or sponsorships.

Content is everywhere; in every exchange between brands and the consumer audiences they covet. And while the delivery systems may change as tech advancements like AI, automation, and virtual reality are more widely proliferated, the hero of the story will undoubtedly remain the same.

Because the key to your brand not only surviving, but also thriving in concert with the digital transformation are the emotional, relatable and memorable experiences created through brand storytelling.