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“Word-of-Mouth” Vs. “Branding”

This entry was originally posted on March 9, 2006 at the old Brandstory blog (link available for a limited time). I’ve made a couple of minor revisions to the original.

John Moore over at Brand Autopsy has written¬†about Jack Trout’s recent article in Forbes which discusses the value of Word of Mouth as a marketing tool. Jack takes a decidedly old-school approach and gets taken to task for it by John, George Silverman, Olivier Blanchard, and others. I won’t deconstruct the article, others have done that already. But I do think that Jack’s column represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the way brand stories are created and shared.

Jack is a big believer in Macro-stories. These are the stories brand managers tell about their brands. They use company controlled marketing tactics like advertising, corporate websites, catalogs, direct mail, and so on to tell the story. Macro-stories are vital to communicating brand positioning and brand values to a huge number of potential and current customers. These are the stories a company can (to some extent) control. They are generally expensive to produce and distribute. And they are often ignored or distrusted by jaded consumers.

Where Jack misses the boat is Micro-stories. These are the stories consumers tell about the brands they love and hate. These are stories that are influenced by Macro-stories, but also include other elements like experience and satisfaction. They are created on an individual basis, one by one. These are stories that companies can only influence, not control.

Take the restaurant chain, Olive Garden, for example. Their brand story (reflected in their television advertising) is one about (large, loving) families gathering for great food, great conversation, and the kind of hospitality you would have received from your Italian grandmother. The company controls the advertising, from where it is placed, to how it is filmed, from the food that is shared, to the attractive people shown eating it. This is the Macro-story.

The Micro-story may or may not reflect this experience played out on TV. If a customer has to wait to be seated, is served cold food, receives poor service, or has mistakes made on his bill, her Micro-story isn’t likely to share many characteristics of the Macro-story. On the other hand, if this customer’s experience is similar (within reason) to the brand story told on the advertisements, her Micro-story will reflect the brand values the company wants to communicate. When she shares her experience, she won’t be talking about the handsome Italian family from the television ads, she’ll talk about her experience at the restaurant.

In other words, once a brand is experienced, the experience, not the advertising or positioning, is the biggest part of the brand story for that consumer. If the experience is compelling, she will share her Micro-story with others at work, at church, at the club, on her blog, and so on. It used to be enough to share the Macro-story and hope for the best, but times have changed.

The biggest difference, of course, is that consumers have so many more ways to share their Micro-stories now that they did just a few years ago. And, thanks to brand experiences disconnected from Macro-stories, more and more consumers no longer believe the brand stories companies “sell” them with traditional advertising. Jack (and hundreds others like him) may always favor the tactics they can control. But their clients will suffer as the power of Micro-stories grows.

That’s why word of mouth matters.

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