We’re all familiar with how powerful storytelling has been in human history. According to historian Yuval Noah Harari, we dominate the planet through our ability to cooperate in large numbers. And we do this through storytelling. Stories bind nations, religious groups, sports teams and organisations.
There are many definitions and methodologies for creating powerful stories, but they all have one thing in common: it all starts with a character. Nothing can happen in a story unless it happens to a character. Characters are relatable and they build connections with your audience. If you want to connect with your audience, then tell them a story about a character they can relate to. If your audience is accountants then tell a story about an accountant, and if your audience is blue-collar workers, then use a blue-collar worker to represent them.
It sounds obvious, but it comes down to the reason why you would use storytelling in the first place in your communications: to create empathy.
Creating empathy is what stories are designed to do and the way to gain access to it is through character. For most people, it is the first point of connection with a story. As people, we identify with other people. Perhaps it’s our mirror neurons firing when we see another person experiencing something. Or maybe it stimulates our amygdala, that tiny section in our brains which amongst other things is responsible for feelings of empathy.
Whatever the reason, empathy is the golden ticket to audience engagement. Information is just information until there is an emotional connection to it.How to create a character
To build a character for your business storytelling you need to create a brand persona.
A brand persona encompasses both the characterisation and character of the business: it is the outer, recognisable appearance of personality and the inner essential values of the business. Companies sometimes think of their logos in this way. That it represents who they are. But this is not their persona. There are exceptions, of course, but a logo is a distilled iconic representation of the company name, whereas a persona adds humanity to how the company represents itself. It is the personification of what the company stands for.Three ingredients of a powerful brand persona1. Know your values
What is the set of values and principles that the company stands for? Having the right values is an important part of a business’s identity.2. Know your audience
Understanding your audience is essential to building a persona that resonates with them. Some questions to ask include:
3. Know your personality
- What are their demographics?
- What is their job description?
- How would you describe their character?
- What are their goals?
- What challenges do they face?
Drawing on Jung’s 12 character archetypes, you can identify the personality archetype and the value it represents that resembles the business. A brand persona can have more than one personality, so it’s possible to mix the archetypes to concoct a unique recipe. For example, a business might identify itself primarily with the sage archetype to represent knowledge and understanding, but also to a lesser extent, jester to add a fun quirky element. Here is a summary of each archetype and its associated value.Uses of character in your communications
Once you have your brand persona, the next step is to decide how you will use it as a character in your marketing and communications. Characters can be used to represent a multitude of people important to the business from your executive to your customers or staff. And they can take the form of a traditional mascot or a spokesperson for your company or audience. They can even be used to personify abstract ideas or a point of view within the business. It all depends on the purpose of the communication.1. Mascot
A mascot is one of the oldest ways for a company to express its personality and values. A mascot can be an animal, mineral or vegetable and acts as a spokesperson or ambassador for the brand. The intention behind a mascot is to create an emotional connection between the company, its customers and staff.
A mascot adds a fun, versatile element to brand communication. Who could forget Mo the meerkat that Vodacom used in a series of commercials some years ago? More recently, the hippo from www.hippo.co.za
has been used with great effect. Through its many iterations from 3D animation to a plush toy, the hippo has become one of the most recognisable mascots in South African branding.
It gives the brand personality, making it friendly and light-hearted. Not exactly what you would expect from an insurance aggregator, but that’s why it works so well. It also gives the marketing team a character to work with, in their creative campaigns. It works just as well for TV commercials, social media or used to create plush toys as part of their social responsibility initiative.
Mascots can also be used for internal communications. Steinmüller Africa has a mascot that they use as a spokesperson and role model for their employee wellness programme. Named Vuka Ke-Nako or ‘VK’ for short, his name means ‘wake-up time’ in Southern Sotho and is represented as a superhero. The premise is that he has the power to fight for and advise employees through trauma, stress, burnout, financial, legal and health matters. VK adds a friendly voice to the company’s wellness messages.
Another interesting angle to a mascot is that it is seen as a good luck charm. For sports teams it rallies support from fans, providing them with a point of focus as they unite behind their team. Could this type of thinking be applied to business? Why not? For customer or staff loyalty programmes where the objective is to unite them in support of the business, a mascot is a perfect vehicle for communication.2. Spokesperson/ambassador
The difference between a mascot and a spokesperson is that the latter is a more serious take on the mascot idea. Typically, a spokesperson is someone who speaks on behalf of the business. This may be for public relations, but it may also be for advertising purposes. Outsurance springs to mind as a brand that uses this technique. They have used staff and customers to act as spokespeople to build resonance and empathy with their audience.
A spokesperson may also be a paid actor who speaks for the company in commercials and other media. They can also be used for internal communications to represent the staff and give them a voice within the company.
A brand ambassador is usually a public figure or influencer who is paid to endorse or promote the brand. Whilst we recognise the fact that they are paid to be associated with the brand, they still exert a powerful influence over us. Selecting a spokesperson or ambassador who aligns with the company’s persona and objective is important to make the relationship work.3. Personification
Personification is defined as “the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something non-human, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form.”
This is a very powerful tool for communications. By personifying abstract ideas in the business, you can make them more relatable and easier to understand. Characters can be used to represent a particular point of view. For example, there may be a prevailing perspective of the company, product or industry that needs to be addressed. By assigning this viewpoint to a character you can recognise and address it in your communications.Implementing character in a communications strategy
Whether you intend to use the character as a mascot, a spokesperson or to personify an idea, you now have the primary element needed to utilise storytelling as part of your communications and for building empathy with your audience.
Exactly how you roll it out depends on your strategic objective. A character can create empathy by simply providing a point of connection for your audience. Or you can take it a step further by building narratives around it to carry your message forward.
One way to do this is to identify how the communication objectives can be expressed through the character’s goals. If you add an obstacle that the character needs to overcome to achieve its goals, then you have the basis of a story and the opportunity to build even deeper connections with your audience.
Whichever approach you use, it all starts by adding character to your communications.