Cool story, bro

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Customers crave stories. For travel and hospitality brands, it’s no longer enough to market your products with only high-res images and a stable of glowing reviews. Let’s look at how three major hospitality players are giving the people what they want.

Storytelling may be an ancient artform, but it only recently emerged as an essential branding tool. Propelled by an online explosion in video content and a desire to harness social-sharing trends, a successful branded storytelling campaign has become the holy grail of content marketing. Well-crafted stories shine a spotlight on your organisation’s narratives. These can range from in-depth origin stories on the ‘About Us’ page to sharable vignettes broadcast on social media. Some brand stories document real events; others are engaging works of pure fiction that embody the company’s values. But virtually all branded stories have at least one thing in common – emotional content.

“Promoting a brand through emotionally charged narratives is an effective way to raise awareness and boost engagement. But telling stories for stories’ sake isn’t enough. You have to know your audience, tap into their psyche and spin tales that resonate with their needs and values. Pull this off, and the rewards are substantial.”

Tales Worth Telling

Industry leaders are coming around to the need to take charge of their narrative – to shape it and distribute it themselves. Here’s how a few heavy hitters in hospitality and travel are accomplishing that:

#1 Airbnb Took Charge of its Narrative with Storytelling

Airbnb has always had a knack for storytelling. Even the company’s unusual name is a story prompt that connects back to the founders’ early days of renting out an inflatable mattress in the living room of their San Francisco loft. It’s an origin story – one that survived full-on rebrands and continues to inform the company’s reason for being.

But they also understand that their core product is difficult to articulate. It’s not as tangible as a mainstream hospitality provider’s. Local hosts are on the frontlines with customers providing all the experiences – from lodging to city tours. They’re the ones doing the meeting and engaging.

In reality, Airbnb exercises little control over its users’ experiences. To counter this, the company has made a concerted effort to shape the way consumers think about its core product – and they’ve used storytelling to accomplish this.

A few years ago, they relaunched the brand with a video that spoke of a world ‘full of cities and towns’ that are ‘constantly growing larger’, one with disconnected people ‘yearning for a sense of place’. Then they move in for the kill:

“What would it be like to feel at home, even when you are away? Imagine having that anywhere.”

In one succinct brand video, Airbnb has taken hold of the narrative and framed itself as an agent of connection. This has freed it up to tell stories about the people it brings together, to tell stories about exceptional experiences offered by Airbnb hosts and to showcase the globe-trotting escapades of its users. This has become a main focus on their website. Have a look at Airbnb’s ‘Stories’ page, where they curate a mix of host bios, user-generated content and other stories related to their network.

#2 Jetblue Connected their Brand to Feel-good Stories

JetBlue was an early adopter in the new wave of branded storytelling. The airline’s social campaign – ‘Fly It Forward’ – focused on Twitter, where it encouraged users to nominate admirable candidates that deserved recognition. These nominees had nothing to do JetBlue.

But a new narrative was about to change that.

Judges selected a few outstanding nominees and offered them a free round-trip ticket. These winners then became goodwill ambassadors and were asked to ‘fly it forward’ by nominating other worthy candidates. The process continued.

By showcasing this goodwill and rewarding it with free flights, JetBlue aligned itself with these stories of selflessness and sacrifice. Of course, all of this was documented on social platforms like Twitter and YouTube. The result was a series of sharable stories about community organisers, survivors and other previously unsung heroes.

What emerged was a kindness chain with JetBlue at the centre. The fact that none of these stories had anything to do with the airline was beside the point. Or maybe it was the point. Twitter swooned.

This is just one example of JetBlue’s successful forays into storytelling. The airline’s ‘Recurring Dream’ video tells a feel-good fictional story about a pigeon who dreams of a better flying experience. It’s cute, memorable and highly sharable – and it links directly to the brand’s key messages.

Then there was the ‘FlyBabies’ campaign, which documented a so-called social experiment where crying babies on airplanes went from a fussy annoyance to a source of free tickets and a cause for applause. Talk about changing the narrative.

#3 Marriott Entertained Audiences with Pure Fiction

Marriott was one of the first major hospitality players to go all-in on using stories to market their products. In 2014, they launched a full-on creative studio to create, produce and distribute content on behalf of their vast portfolio of brands.

This studio set about producing a steady stream of polished video content designed primarily to entertain. A trilogy of Two Bellmen films are the crown jewels in this new endeavour. These highly choreographed action films run from 17 to 35 minutes and are shot on location at specific Marriott hotels. Each has racked up several million views on YouTube.

David Beebe, who founded Marriott’s Content Studio and ran it for nearly three years, once explained that the why behind the content was more important than the what. In other words, they weren’t making content for content’s sake. Most of the content they produced connected back to specific sales packages, thereby driving bookings.

What’s Your Story

One of the reasons a well-crafted branded story is so compelling is that it’s uniquely yours. It sets your brand apart in the market and provides customers with a human connection – something they can engage with.

You might even say that the way to your target customer’s heart is through a story, which begs the question: What’s yours?

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