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Brands Need to Stop Trying to Play Hero

The goal should be participation

Illustration: Miguel Montaner

Did you ever know that you’re not my hero? There. It had to be said (or sung). Consider this amusing yet pertinent disconnect in the spirit of helping brands with positioning. One of the biggest mistakes brands make in storytelling is to play the role of the hero. Today we must make consumers the hero while we get better at being their mentor.

Why the shift? What’s making the brand-as-hero approach less effective? Consumers. They’ve become more sophisticated, resourceful and now have higher expectations. Any intent to control them may be received as arrogance and is unlikely to pass through their acceptance filters. But when your goal becomes participation, rather than control, the hero is more likely to let you into his world and his story. You can start by focusing on efforts that rotate your brand from being push-driven and brand-centric (brand as hero) to being experience-based and consumer-engaging (brand as mentor).

How? Well, let’s look to the great Wizard of Oz for an illustration of “hero” and “mentor.” Who is the hero? Dorothy. Who is the mentor? Glenda. She helped Dorothy get to Oz. Brands need to become the good-witch Glenda and offer real value to the consumer.

This Glenda/Dorothy concept is the basis of our Storyscaping approach that is designed to connect brands with consumers in this always-on, digitally enabled world.

Consumers befriend mentors that serve to help them achieve a goal, satisfy a desire or meet a need. Making your customer the hero of your brand’s narrative landscape empowers them. Brands that serve the needs of consumers naturally become part of their stories—and who better to tell your brand story than a hero?

Look to Toms Shoes as a good working example of the “consumer as hero/brand as mentor” philosophy. Toms was born from a purpose—to provide children in need with shoes and improve their health and well-being. Toms’ “One for One” model promises that for every pair of shoes purchased, a pair will be given to a disadvantaged child. Toms mentors its customers by providing a streamlined way to support a greater purpose, and everybody wins.

When brands act as mentors, they create bridges between people and their needs. Whenever possible, those bridges need to be tangible. In the past, storytelling served as the bridge, but today, stories, even great stories, aren’t enough. Remember, the goal is participation, so brands must create experiences beyond the narrative where heroes become immersed and involved. That’s the differentiator between a story told and a story lived.

There are a few simple, yet powerful steps to becoming a Glenda. First, dissolve any unnecessary separation between your organization and brand. The consumer sees you as the brand, and when you think and act from that place, your efforts will project more cohesively and authentically.

The language you use should change. When the goal is to mentor, involve and participate, the old terminology of “targeting an audience” sets up the wrong premise from the start. These are the folks who create much of your content, hold powerful influence and actually control their own interaction within your experience space. So it will be helpful to find a more accurate and empowering reference than one-directional terms like “target” or “user.”

Also, whether you call them consumers, guests, customers or anything else, please always keep in mind that they are people—the very people who are defining, creating and building their story through the acquisition and application of your products and services. Ideally, they are (or will become) the people who interact and transact with your brand in meaningful and immersive ways, the people who carry your brand as part of their story.

Finally, consumers are likely to favor brands that share values they care about, so establish a meaningful purpose and share it often to encourage cooperation, participation and even more sharing. Are people more likely to express and share stories they are part of and feel good being part of? In our experience, the answer is a resounding yes.

Never let Dorothy surrender.

Gaston Legorburu (@gastonleg) is worldwide chief creative officer, SapientNitro.

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