The evolution of brand storytelling: How Johnson & Johnson finds stories that connect

Storytelling has been ingrained in human nature for tens of thousands of years. Going all the way back to the first recorded cave paintings, it’s a core part of how we communicate. Along those lines, companies recognize the value of investing in and developing content marketing, which is part of the complex art of brand storytelling.

The challenge is getting your content to the right people, while standing out among the countless other messages people are bombarded with daily. One way brands are increasingly cutting through the clutter is by taking a newsroom approach to storytelling.

During our most recent webinar, “The Evolution of Brand Storytelling: Taking a Newsroom Approach,” we discussed how marketers can put that into practice, along with executives from Johnson & Johnson, Perfect Sense and Velocity.

“If we weren’t telling our own stories on social media, other people would be telling their own stories and they might not have the facts,” explained Carrie Sloan, VP of Johnson & Johnson’s Global Content Lab, who helped transform the 130-year-old company into a storytelling powerhouse.

The evolution of corporate communications

Jen Kern, CMO at Perfect Sense, explained why stories need an emotional dimension: Human beings prefer to interact with stories rather than ads. The corporate communication team used to be a broadcast function, issuing press releases and holding press conferences. Now, there must be a regular, two-way dialogue.

Coca-Cola Journey

One of the best examples of this is Coca-Cola’s Journey. Initially met with internal resistance, Journey has evolved from a corporate website to a media platform. It amplifies a variety of stories, many of which have nothing to do with Coca-Cola.

According to Jay Moye, editor-in-chief of Journey, “We believe that authentic stories matter, that exceptional writing and visuals win the day, and that building a global digital newsroom and real-time PR tool could transform how we engage with all our readers.”

Though content marketing is an established strategy, the newsroom approach is difficult to implement. It’s not just about having the technical skills; it’s about intuitively understanding what makes a good story.

It’s crucial to hire people with a broad range of skills to help your brand rethink storytelling. You may hire a former journalist with the insight and contacts necessary to interview C-suite leadership for interviews to publish on your main corporate site. But at the same time, you can’t neglect the more snackable content created for social media. It also helps to have a “bench” of freelance specialists to complement and augment your in-house content team.

“It’s not what we want to talk about; it’s what the world wants to hear”

Journey has provided valuable insight into what resonates with consumers, providing useful insight for Coca-Cola to further evolve their content marketing strategy. To stay truly relevant, brands must understand what people are really interested in.

“It’s not what we want to talk about; it’s what the world wants to hear,” said Sloan.

When Johnson & Johnson launched extended parental leave across the organization, they treated it like a product launch involving all departments to get insights on what mattered the most. To bring the message to life, they focused on real people’s stories. Johnson & Johnson identified a father from Japan and a mother from Brazil, who were filmed talking about what the extended parental leave meant to them. Seeing real people talk about bonding with their newborns created powerful stories that others could connect to.

Johnson & Johnson parental leave content

People love genuine stories, but there’s a fine line to tread. Anything that feels inauthentic may be seen as exploitative, potentially undermine the brand. A good test for authenticity is whether you can put find a real person to be the face of the story.

Where can we find these powerful stories? The answer seems to be, everywhere. Sloan recalled visiting Johnson & Johnson’s research scientists, who told her what it was like to see a molecule under a microscope. While most people can’t relate to that exactly, everyone can relate to the very human excitement. This led to a series of video interviews with researchers talking about their own “lightbulb moments.”

Starting with social

Distribution, particularly via social channels, should remain at the forefront of the planning process. Johnson & Johnson has adopted a social-first strategy, meaning that each campaign begins with social media channels in mind. The 20-second video segments come first, with longer form content as a secondary consideration.

A great example of integrating social media into an overall marketing campaign comes from the Miss America pageant. When asked about her special talent, Miss Colorado replied, “being a nurse.” Though people ridiculed her response, the backlash (#nursesunite) highlighted nurses’ extraordinary talent.

Johnson & Johnson has always supported nurses and picked up on the story quickly through social media. They then set up a campaign on their ‘Donate a photo’ website. For every photo that was shared, Johnson & Johnson donated $1 to help train future nurses around the world. This put the brand on the front cover of national media for the right reasons, demonstrating their commitment to nurses.

Johnson & Johnson - Courage for Cassidy

Similarly, a little girl named Cassidy was in a hospital that ran out of Band-Aids featuring cartoon characters. Upon leaving, Cassidy set up a charity to deliver Band-Aids to hospitals, ensuring that all kids get character Band-Aids. Cassidy’s father tweeted at Johnson & Johnson, the Band-Aid brand’s parent company, which ended up donating 600 boxes. The brand also drove the resulting social media traffic toward the charity, ultimately paying for Cassidy’s treatment and delivering a social benefit.

Creating a “center of excellence”

After hearing these powerful examples, we then heard from Doug Kessler, co-founder at Velocity Partners. Discussing the challenges brands face, Kessler referred to “content proliferation.”

In a way, content marketing is a victim of its own success. Even within one company, there are often many different teams producing their own content. This often makes it difficult to keep the quality and tone of voice consistent across the organization.

Kessler recommended building a “center of excellence” that identifies and champions best practices, coaching great content, rather than policing compliance. The center of excellence approach allows compaies to find the right balance between creativity, consistency and control.

He also warned of the dangers of building a content machine and creating a production process. This often results in teams losing “the joy of storytelling,” over-templating and developing a cookie cutter approach. To avoid the resulting staleness, Kessler suggested that marketers consistently experiment with the 70:20:10 approach. In other words, 70% of content should be tried and tested, 20% can be a bit riskier and 10%, completely experimental.

“People will always choose the safe option. But if you’re committed to experimentation, you’ll start producing some really cool content that resonates,” said Kessler, offering security software Norton’s “Most Dangerous Town on the Internet” as an example.

Wrapping up

Great stories are useless if you’re not getting them in front of your audience. Sloan suggested engaging customers to elevate and distribute the content, using tools such as Brightspot to create a “conversation engine.” That’s the essence of the newsroom approach to story and content distribution.

By gathering data and insights into the target personas, marketers can more effectively amplify and augment the stories. Personas are not static. Constantly reviewing the data lets us know about changing behavior. That tells us whether we should update existing personas or create new ones.

Creating compelling stories is an ongoing and ever-evolving process that involves everyone in the organization. It also includes using social listening to identify the stories, interests and passions of your customers.

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