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What’s Your Omni-Story?


By Jim Singer, A.T. Kearney, and Ryan Mathews, Black Monk Consulting

That well-known business guru Rod Stewart once sang, “… every picture tells a story don't it.” We’re not sure about Rod’s pictures — or his grammar for that matter — but in today’s “omnichannel” retail world, every channel tells a story or, more correctly stated, every channel offers a different opportunity to tell the same story. In the same way that corporations and other institutions cripple their potential by constructing silos between departments and functions, many retailers are feverishly erecting platform-based marketing silos, segregating message by medium.

At first blush this appears to make some sense. One cannot, after all, broadcast a video through a print or radio ad. By the same token what might pass as edgy design in a print ad might appear out of place on an interactive website. And, to be clear, we are not suggesting that the form of retail marketing messages remain consistent from platform to platform or channel to channel. What we are saying is that the brand narrative — the “story,” if you will — should be channel- and platform-agnostic.

For this analysis we will be thinking of channels in terms of broad ranges of marketing activities, including advertising, direct mail (digital and physical), social media, and product placement. What we call platforms are the functions that allow messages to move through channels. By this definition, platforms such as Instagram and LinkedIn support the social media channel. Mobile telephony, wearable computation, tablets, and laptops are technologies or devices providing users access to platforms.

Every retail marketing message is, at its heart, a story. And all storytelling is composed of a successful combination of a handful of critical elements: a storyteller, a narrative form, a plot line, great characters, universal themes, a moral or message, and, perhaps most importantly, an audience.

With this in mind, we’ve created a list of 10 simple suggestions for retailers hoping to tell their marketing stories on and through the variety of channels and platforms we now refer to as the omnichannel environment.

Rule One: Match the style to the channel

On page 22 of its The Fearless Flyer Holiday Guide 2014, a 24-page product promotion piece that is direct mailed and handed out in store, Trader Joe’s devotes 206 words to egg nog, tracing its etymology back over a millennium and suggesting customers consider making their next order of French toast with egg nog and chocolate chips. In the Fearless Flyer context this works well but we are hard pressed to imagine how drawing a comparison between thousand-year-old recipes and a discussion of Middle English nouns, as used in East Anglia, would play on YouTube.

For the record, the only YouTube reference to Trader Joe’s egg nog we could find appears courtesy of one “wendyoffroad” and never once mentions a thing about the origin of the name.

Rule Two: When it comes to narrative, be consistent

Just because you’re jumping between channels and/or platforms and devices doesn’t mean your message should change. So, if you’re selling your store as a discounter online, you should mention discounting everywhere your brand messaging appears.

Rule Three: In today’s world one size never fits all

Stories might have universal appeal but marketing channels and platforms don’t. Tailor your messaging to your audience and skip platforms if they don’t seem appropriate. There may be a good reason why The Spy Store doesn’t have a Facebook page.

Rule Four: Never let context dictate content

Never fall so in love with the intricacies or capacities of a channel or platform that you let the channel/platform form dictate or alter your marketing content. The early history of websites is replete with examples of retailers who fell so in love with click-through capability and banner ad potential that they managed to turn off as many — or more — customers than they attracted.

Rule Five: All storytelling is interactive

Your audience will determine whether the vehicle for reaching them is a campfire or an app. Forget this and you might as well forget everything. The move to digitally based communication has hyper-evolved the notion of customer responsiveness and feedback from an era of physical letters and phone cues to a universe ruled by peer review (Angie’s List and Yelp), angry voices in the cyber wilderness (blogs), and the ability to instantly complain to a fair percentage of the population of the planet (Facebook).

Constructive real-time responsiveness is the key to all marketing success.

Rule Six: Stick to the plot

There are a handful of successful near universal plot lines: the hero’s quest, creation stories, tales of transformation, myths of the fall and redemption, and stories about what happens at a crossroad. The closer you can tailor your message to one of these historical plot lines the more likely it is an audience will be to be predisposed to listen.

Rule Seven: There’s a reason most novels are broken into chapters

Too much content is just too difficult to process all at once. That said, information needs to be complete to be effective. Outdoor retailer REI is a good example of a retailer who makes extensive use of video, always matching length to content value. So, for example, REI’s video on tent maintenance runs 49 seconds and their advice on stand-up paddling your kayak is conveyed in 33 seconds, while it takes five minutes and 39 seconds to discuss slacklining and somewhere between two and three minutes each for its destination travel videos.

Rule Eight: There is a difference between Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand

Voice and tone are critical, so some messages are best delivered by the head of the retail company. There’s no doubt that for many people George Zimmer was all but inseparable from Men’s Warehouse. After all, he personally “guaranteed” each and every customer’s happiness. The challenge for the company going forward will be maintaining that personalized, conversational tone with the customer now that the man that originated it has been separated from the company.

Rule Nine: The credibility of the story depends on the credibility of the storyteller

No doubt the Skechers commercial with Pete Rose being “thrown out of the hall” by his wife works, but it’s a good example of how easy it is for a storyteller (or pitchman) to travel the perilously short distance from hero to zero. Don’t believe us? Just ask the companies that hired Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods, or Lance Armstrong.

Rule Ten: Have fun

We’ll leave you with one last story from one of our favorite retailers—Las Vegas’ Zombie Apocalypse Store. Here — unless you are paranoid to a degree mandating institutionalization — is a retailer who clearly is having fun. Their website’s home page promises “Lots of Fun — Lots of functional stuff for surviving the Zombie Apocalypse.”

Okay, so maybe your store doesn’t allow customers to “Register Here For Zombie Shooting Experience&

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