In April, I had the privilege of speaking at the Activate 19 Growth Marketing Conference, hosted by Iterable, a company that has created a popular, AI-powered cross-marketing platform. Joined by my friend Hannah Mans, Director of Marketing at Directive, a search engine marketing agency based in Irvine, California, I gave a talk called “Stat Meets Story. The talk’s central question: Where is brand storytelling going in these increasingly digitally-driven times?
Within that larger question lurk smaller but still very big ones: What exactly is the relationship between marketing strategy and the tactical end of marketing, where so much digital innovation is happening? How are these two ends of the marketing spectrum talking to and informing each other? How do strategy and story influence and shape the creation of marketing collateral? You get the idea.
As someone who mostly creates and shares strategy with company leaders, I’m always interested in how that strategy plays out—or trickles down—in the implementation of marketing communications.
On stage at The Palace Hotel in San Francisco, in a room of about 50 mid-level marketing managers, I realized I had an opportunity to unearth this kind of information directly by starting things off with a snap, show-of-hands poll.
I was rather surprised by the answers I got from the six questions I posed. The talk itself made me question at least some of the assumptions I’ve been making about how brand storytelling is translated from the communications platform to the marketing funnel on its way to the end customer.
First question: “How many of you have played a major role in a strategic brand initiative such as a repositioning or a comprehensive brand refresh?”
About 10 hands went up—10 out of about 50 marketing managers. Fewer than I would’ve thought, but okay, the big initiatives don’t come around every day, or typically even every year.
Next question: “How many of you have referred to a ‘strategic brand foundation’ (brand platform, brand guidelines, communications platform, etc.) —the output of a strategic brand initiative—in fulfilling your marketing responsibilities?
About 5 hands went up. The response caused me to wonder about the extent to which the kinds of things that are central to strategists (positioning, promise, personality, etc.) actually make their way to into the hands of technical marketing managers.
Third question: “How many of you are responsible for reporting Marketing ROI?”
About a third of the hands went up. Fewer than I would have thought, but not surprising: Growth marketers’ activity tends to generate lots more in the way of metrics than strategists’. At times, we’re held accountable to KPIs but we’re almost never asked to demonstrate ROI in dollars and cents. Our clients are content to understand that we’ve helped them achieve strategic objectives, or what Gartner, who introduced the concept, has called VOI, value on investment. If they have a way of translating this to ROI, that’s their business.
I continued on. “How many of you factor brand value into your success metrics?
Not a single hand went up. At one level, this didn’t surprise me. Brand value isn’t necessarily easy to measure. And if strategists aren’t usually asked about ROI, why should I expect tactical marketers to be concerned with brand value? Still, I was disappointed. I was hoping for at least a hand or two. I dream of finding proof that such a connection exists, that it’s worth making.
Fifth question: “How many of you consider yourselves storytellers?
About one-third identified themselves as such. Apparently, storytelling covers a lot of different kinds of activity at a lot of different levels. The person creating a single piece of content is a storyteller. The person responsible for overall content strategy is a storyteller. The person who marshalls activity across the sum of communications channels is a storyteller. The strategist responsible for shaping overall brand expression at the highest level is a storyteller. More than once, this realization is what’s led me to speculate that some set of tools or methods must exist for the strategical and tactical sides of the business to optimize each other.
Last question: “How many of you know your company’s vision statement?”
Just one person raised a hand. This really threw me. At the level of strategy, I can’t do good work without a good vision in hand: The vision is something like the plot line of the overarching story we set out to tell. But okay, maybe, in the tactical trenches, knowing your company’s vision isn’t of practical value. Beyond that, what does this say about a company’s efforts to build a cohesive culture, a team that’s pulling the same direction?
I had always assumed that marketing strategy and tactics generally informed each other and worked in close coordination. Hannah, whose time ran short because mine ran long, remains firm in her conviction that strategy and tactics do work that way, or at least can. In her position at Directive, she’s someone who bridges the two. She can connect the dots in a pretty convincing way, and in a future post I hope to share how she does it.
In the meantime, to judge by the show of hands at the summit, I’m having my doubts that most of the rest of us really see the connection. And, hmm, maybe doing so isn’t as important as I’d thought.