Change management in marketing can make or break the transition to a brand storytelling methodology.
Creativity Marketing Transformation

Why a Lasting Shift to Brand Storytelling Requires Change Management

9 Minute Read

Organizational change is more than an uphill battle. It’s monumental. Effecting a lasting enterprise transformation is even harder to achieve than starting and scaling a business from scratch.

As a change management consultant, I’ve avoided initiating this topic here for years. I convinced myself that readers of the Content Standard didn’t want fundamental change, but instead, yearned for glib nuggets that would tide them over. Get them through that day’s stakeholder meeting. Scratch the brand storytelling itch with inspiration. Refresh their social sharing queue.

But the trends are exposing something else. Marketers are searching for more and more unconventional educational resources. Brands are stepping away from traditional advertising methods. And more and more companies are shifting toward an audience-first approach. They’re doing it. They’re reconsidering their usual interruption of addictive content and, for the first time, endeavoring to become the destination for premium content. Finally, after years of encouragement from visionaries, the movement is gaining undeniable steam.

For companies who want to transition from interrupt advertising to a more altruistic brand storytelling, help may come by way of change management in marketing.

Image attribution: Thomas8047

The only problem, then, is the conflicting cultures, organizations, technologies, and processes that hinder the shift. Brands are surprised to find they can’t just decide to change and expect the details to “fall into place.” Sadly, many of the success stories implode before they’ve even made it halfway to lasting change.

I believe that for businesses that are serious about this shift, change management is the answer.

John P. Kotter, the “godfather” of change management, foremost speaker on enterprise change, and celebrated author of over a dozen business leadership books, says there are eight ways to pressure test a large-scale change before declaring it a smart move and trudging forward. “To be effective, a method designed to alter strategies, reengineer processes, or improve quality must address these barriers and address them well,” he writes in Leading Change, the industry’s unofficial handbook on organizational transformation.

Let’s jump in.

Address Complacency and Agree There’s a Crisis

You wouldn’t believe how many marketing managers still believe there’s not unrest in the advertising industry. They may acknowledge the trends, sure, but you can sense it—there’s nothing in their attitude that indicates a discomfort with the old way of doing things. Not long ago, complacency was the number one complaint I heard from innovative marketers who wanted to establish change in their departments. “I’ll have to convince my boss,” was the sad song they all seemed to sing.

Today, though, teams seem to be more and more in agreement: Everything has changed, and consumers now interact with brands on their terms. The conflict has arrived. Few leaders continue to deny it, and the problem today isn’t as much “convincing” the executives as it is deciding which reroute to take.

Form a Group of Internal Influencers

Gone are the days of strictly hierarchical authority. In a June 2017 change management presentation, Jeppe Hansgaard, CEO of organizational network analysis provider Innovisor, got real with a true depiction of the influential factors honestly at work within the common org chart.

For companies who want to transition from interrupt advertising to a more altruistic brand storytelling, help may come by way of change management in marketing.

Image attribution: Innovisor

In light of the real-life ingredients you see here (and the ones implicated by association), it’s crucial to select the most truly influential characters in each circle to champion the change you want to affect. These personalities won’t just sway their buddies, they’ll also:

  • Voice insightful concerns on behalf of their peers
  • Illuminate ideas management couldn’t have cooked up on their own
  • Point out tricky pitfalls before the team encounters them
  • Empower executives with a unified voice of support (and logic)
  • Feel privileged to contribute—solidifying their assistance
  • Help strategize with realistic expectations on timelines and milestones

For a successful core team, Kotter recommends starting with at least a few executives, a handful of SMEs, and some proven social leaders. This way, you get a group of higher-ups, experts, and credible activators for both today’s strategic input and the coming ground-level internal conversations.

Establish a Vision and a Documented Strategy

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Content Marketing Institute’s Master Class here in Washington, D.C., where I learned that most brands are disappointed in their content marketing results. But the problem didn’t grow out of a dissatisfaction with the actual brand storytelling pieces produced or the results they generated but with the uncertainty of what that content was expected to deliver in the first place. Even the brands that had what they call a “strategy” hadn’t written it down (thus negating the term) or adhered to it.

For companies who want to transition from interrupt advertising to a more altruistic brand storytelling, help may come in the form of change management for marketing.

Image attribution: Maria Eklind

Change management in marketing dictates the need for a well-researched and corroborated strategy, complete with a purpose, a target audience, a medium, a schedule, a dedicated team, and a list of milestones.

Engaging the Whole Company

If you’re still operating in a silo, you’ll be disappointed to learn your brand storytelling efforts are likely to fizzle, given enough time and friction. In companies that battle internal politics, power struggles, philosophical differences, and budget disagreements, departmental rivalries and traditionalists can be early show-stoppers. This step—communicating the vision to the whole company—will expose a number of surprising pockets of resistance. Instead of viewing them as opponents, however, these cranks can give you the gift of more insight. My friend Chuck Frey calls these characters dinosaurs, and says they’re a common challenge faced by marketers who want to shift to a more generous communication style.

Are You Still With Me?

Before moving on to step five in the change management process, let’s do a check-in. How are you feeling? Have you tried the above things in your company? Or did everyone just start creating content back in 2014 or 2015, leaving you with a ton of “digital assets,” disenchantment, and finger-pointing today? Don’t worry, this is where most brands are finding themselves today.

Hopefully, you can see how a methodical approach can be excruciatingly slow and cumbersome, yet necessary to set the stage for a technique that lasts. You can’t go back in time, but you can always—always—change.

Let’s keep going.

Enable Broad Actions

Say you’re following the process of change management in marketing and you’re feeling confident. You’ve established a crisis. You’ve assembled a team. You’ve arm wrestled your core leaders back and forth until you all agree on a documented vision, purpose, and strategy. You’ve even communicated the brand storytelling plan to your whole company, addressing the naysayers and traditionalists. Next, it’s time to remove more tangible obstacles from individuals who want to advance the mission.

For companies who want to transition from interrupt advertising to a more altruistic brand storytelling, help may come in the form of change management for marketing.

Image attribution: Dragan

We’re talking about old customs, software, systems, structures, and other common sources of discouragement. Plan to encounter these impediments, and direct resources to tackle them before they dilute the enthusiasm you’ve worked so hard to generate.

Identify and Amplify Short-Term Wins

At this stage, every little achievement that aligns with your strategy should be called out and applauded. Not long ago, most corporate commendation was considered a manipulative gimmick. However, today’s incoming marketing professionals crave an altruistic audience-building approach. So in this case, the real purposes of little “wins” are many.

  • They affirm people who have made sacrifices. Short-term costs are justified by the benefits of short-term wins.
  • Interim achievements also reward your guiding coalition or core team of influencers who worked hard to get the whole thing rolling.
  • Short-term wins let you tweak your strategy based on concrete data.
  • They quiet your critics. Or, if nothing else, they uncover critical team members so you can hear them out.
  • Short-term gains also reassure previously skeptical bosses.
  • Finally, early wins fuel momentum.

Most brands who went wild creating content last year have experienced these, and enjoyed the benefits of a shot of adrenaline. What happens with that jolt, however, determines whether you had a strategy on which to stand once those short-term wins are a few months behind you.

The People Puzzle

When a team looks at short-term wins, one of two things happens. For the team that has completed the first six steps, a confidence builds. Budgets begin to shift in earnest. Enterprise software is procured. Hiring, promotions, and other personnel changes can take place. Leadership isn’t shocked by the sudden need for more of the same that got them here.

Heck, they helped author it.

But for the team without a documented strategy, these short-term wins don’t elicit support. They produce pressure.

All eyes turn to the marketing department. What are they doing over there? Can they do it over here? Why are they wasting time on entertaining such a small niche when we have traffic numbers to hit? Don’t they know we have a hungry funnel to fill? Leads to generate? They’d better have some metrics for all the resources they’re costing us . . .

For companies who want to transition from interrupt advertising to a more altruistic brand storytelling, help may come by way of change management in marketing.

Image attribution: Desmond Kavanagh

Unfortunately, this step can’t even be attempted without the others having been tackled. And that’s because in change management, this step looks more like managing the business implications of the short-term wins we just talked about. If those wins are a part of a strategy, then you have your work already cut out for you here. Simply refer to the strategy to take your momentum to where you’d planned. You’ll experience good old-fashioned growth pains—the kind other brands envy.

But if you simply jumped into creating content because it’s the “thing to do,” this step is the wake-up call you need to start over with a legitimate plan.

The Final Step

“Culture eats strategy for lunch,” Peter Drucker famously said. And that’s why the final step of the change management process is so crucial. That marketing visionary who came in and whipped everyone into a brand storytelling tizzy may go become the chief evangelist (or something) for someone else. When that happens, what becomes of the whole move you just made?

While I’d love to offer you this step to bask and recuperate, unfortunately, there’s a little more work to be done. In the final step of change management, according to John Kotter, the brand learns to identify and articulate relationships between the new behaviors and positive, planned results. They establish succession blueprints and schedule check-ins to prevent a natural regression. A new corporate culture is born.

Implications for Today

In light of all this, you won’t be surprised to learn that I personally don’t believe change can be managed. But it can—and should—be guided.

The concept of “change management” in practice looks a lot more like agility, not to be confused with speed. “The problem for us today is that stability is no longer the norm,” writes Kotter in Leading Change. “And most experts agree that over the next few decades the business environment will become only more volatile.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Featured image attribution: Thomas Angermann

Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and Philips currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's wild gig economy. For more, visit

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