What’s your story?

The power of narrative, part one

New Zealand has hundreds of small, independently owned wineries, each with a unique story to tell. It’s puzzling, then, to see virtually the same description pop up on so many websites and social media channels.

This dearth of originality was highlighted not too long ago by Angie Bradbury, managing director of Dig Marketing Group (based in Melbourne) and one of the presenters at the New Zealand Wine Exporters Forum held in Blenheim in July.

In her workshop, “Marketing and Brand Development – Stand Out from the Commodity Crowd,” Angie asked participants how many times they had read  this script on a winery website:

“We’re a family-owned wine business hand-crafting unique wines from our estate-grown vineyard. We combine state-of-the-art technology and traditional winemaking techniques.”

Does that ring any bells? Ouch. “The single biggest challenge for wineries these days is differentiating themselves from everyone else,” she noted.

While most wineries recognise the need for some biographical content on their websites, they often bypass the steps required to create a compelling narrative that describes the genesis of their brand.

I chalk that up to two factors:

  1. Most content is created in-house, by winery owners.
  2. Most people are inherently modest when asked to describe what they do.

From a marketing perspective, the combination is often deadly. The very people who are the natural subjects of the story have given themselves the task of writing it.

In my experience, people find it difficult enough to “sell” their personal achievements, let alone identify and analyse the elements that underlie the authenticity of their brand. Ask a space shuttle astronaut what he does, and he’ll answer, “I’m a pilot.” Ask the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and he’ll say, “I’m a welder.” Ask a winery owner, and the first thing you’re likely to hear is the generic story cited by Angie.

Worse, unless there are some good communications skills lurking in the background, the basic “rules” of storytelling are likely to be overlooked:

  • Who is it about?
  • What happened?
  • Where did it take place?
  • When did it take place?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?

The five Ws provide the essential details, and the one H provides the narrative. They are the nuts and bolts of reporting, and the first questions you’re trained to ask in journalism school.

Stories, however, are not quite the same as a pyramid-shaped news item that details the latest parliamentary scandal or natural disaster. They gain power by following a recognisable narrative “arc,” starting with an exposition of the characters, the setting, and the goal or challenge. From there, we move into the action – often, the events and decisions that result from an “aha” moment – and then on towards resolution: the creation of a winery.

Of course, a winery’s story doesn’t really end there. New challenges emerge, new goals are set, and new characters enter at stage right. The “foundation story,” however, is a critical element in any winery’s marketing and communications programme – it provides the raison d’être for all that follows. Good wine is a prerequisite, but a memorable foundation story immediately differentiates your brand, and that in turn makes you and your wines more attractive to the public, the press and the trade.

The Old World has it easy. Usually, the genesis of a winery goes back generations, and many chapters have already been written chronicling its rise and fall … and rise again, with a changing cast of characters over time.

In comparison, New Zealand wineries typically have a history that lasts about five minutes (relatively speaking) – even many of our “pioneer” wineries are still held by the original founders.

That needn’t be a drawback. Freshness has its own appeal, and may even help to create an intimacy between proprietor and customer that older or larger companies can only envy from afar.

In the next few posts, I’m going to explore some of the best foundation stories I’ve encountered on company websites – and the role they play in marketing wine.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read Angie’s presentation, here’s the link.

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