Honesty and authenticity are the key to cutting through to your audiences in a world turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Photo of Corrie Jones

That verdict was delivered by the expert panel at our latest online MeetUp: How to tell your startup story, featuring Pinterest’s Global Creative Director, James Hurst, Depixym’s co-founder, Alice Rhodes, and Untapped Digital’s CEO, Corrie Jones.

More than 300 people joined the great line-up of panellists, who provided expert insight into how brands have navigated tricky storytelling during the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. 

The panellists all agreed that brands need to be more human and less ‘corporate’ for their narrative to cut through to their audiences in a meaningful way. 

Corrie said: “In the first week of lockdown, there were so many emails coming through from CEOs of brands saying that they care about me so much. I’d never heard from them before, and it’d sound like a copy and paste, boring message that anyone could have said. The brands that did well were the ones that had messages that were genuinely authentic and were saying something a little bit different about how they could support people.”

Alice added: “In the startup world, I’ve seen a lot of businesses emerge from this being so authentic and honest and I think that’s really refreshing. There is a distrust now towards some bigger brands.”

James said: “I think sometimes brands follow culture. What happens contextually; brands think ‘we’ve got to start doing some of that now’. I think that’s dangerous. The brands that are getting it right are the brands that have been really true to their overall start and are being human about it.

“The brands that I think have been getting it totally wrong are the virtue signallers. The supermarket boss saying, ‘I’m here for you’. Really? Because you weren’t here for me when I didn’t have any money last month. That’s a really dangerous place for a brand to play in, because it immediately erodes any credibility that they’ve been building.

“The brands that are getting it right are the ones that have managed to maintain their own DNA. I can’t think of a single brand that hasn’t messed it up a little over the last year.”

Turning to how brands create their own tone, James believes a mixture of head and heart is an important combination.

He added: “It’s about the head and the heart. Sometimes we forget the heart because we’re so focused on the head. For me, a great brand is made out of good intellectual strategic thinking, great emotional responses - but also the beautiful detail that makes something worth visiting. The brands that people pick up on are the little details and the thoughtfulness in what a founder or brand has actually done. 

“Anyone can say anything quickly, but saying something that is right and saying something at the right time - saying something that’s part of a bigger story - is really, really hard to get right.”

Alice launched Depixym with co-founder, Victoria Feebery. Both were tired of the way things were in the beauty industry and wanted to shake things up a bit – something that comes out in the way they treat and talk to customers today.

“You walk into department stores and you’re confronted with these images of skinny white women, and, yeah, they’re beautiful, but everyone’s amazing – and we just wanted to really change the industry and break some boundaries and do something that was sustainable and good for the world.”  

She added: “Our tone of voice is our tone of voice - because we want it to be authentic. If we tried something else, it just wouldn’t be authentic. We wanted it to be a relatable brand. We knew what people were calling out for because we’d seen it and we’d heard it. That made it a lot easier to figure out our tone of voice and where the brand was going.”

Corrie and her team work with a number of different brands, so she understands the desire to be different. But, she warns that brands have to take things like social media seriously if they want to succeed. 

“The bulk of our work is for brands that don’t understand social media or don’t have the time to give it what it deserves. Brands really need to think about where social media fits within their overall marketing. It should never be the only way you’re marketing to people. 

“The great thing about having a startup is maybe you don’t have as big a team as bigger brands, but what you do have is that desire to do things a bit differently and to innovate – and that speed that you can do things differently, as well. 

“Because social media is accessible to so many people and because it can take one minute to fire off a quick tweet, I think so many brands think of social media as a quick win - but actually there are some posts on social media that would be seen by more people than in a magazine, or if you booked a billboard somewhere. Just because it’s quick to do, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put as much thought into it as you would do other elements of your branding.

“Everyone’s always talking about wanting more likes and more followers, but the beauty of social is that you can build up a really intimate audience that care about one thing - whether it’s the best make-up to wear that day; the best non-fiction books... If you’ve got time to spend, which startup founders often have more time than money, you can spend time reaching out to people organically on social media and offering value to them.”

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