Power and Influence in Brand Storytelling

August 20, 2019

What is power, and what makes a brand story powerful? German sociologist Max Weber defined power as the ability of one person to exert their will over the resistance of others. That autocratic, colonial approach to power certainly sounds like many famous leaders, but that definition misses the larger picture of human potential. Individuals can make impressive achievements on their own, but it’s only when humans work together in a coordinated way toward a clearly defined goal that we achieve remarkable feats. Power is cooperation and one’s ability to encourage cooperation from others. A powerful brand story incites customers, clients, workers, managers, and shareholders to cooperate toward a company’s greater benefit. Researchers French and Raven defined six types of social power in the 1960s: referent, reward, coercive, expert, legitimate, and informative. Marketers can use each one to empower their brand stories and encourage cooperation from potential customers.

Referent Power uses affiliation to encourage cooperation. Being part of the same team, on the same side, “us” and not “them”, or having the same ideals or identities, all encourage cooperation. To use referent power effectively, one must understand customers, where and how they live, and what they care about.

Example: Hypothetical company RayToday installs solar + storage systems across the Pacific Northwest. Their brand story includes people in a shared vision of a greener future, weaves references to affiliations (regional, academic, athletic, political) strategically throughout their messaging, and creates a sense of camaraderie by treating everyone like they’re all on the same side of sustainable energy.

Reward Power exists in win-win situations where cooperation creates additional value for everyone involved. If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Cost savings. Future benefits. This is the bread and butter of marketing and can be the most psychologically effective but requires translating the features of a company’s products and services into clear customer benefits.

Example: RayToday includes customer benefits in their marketing materials, spec sheets, and financial breakdowns. These benefits include expenses saved from energy reduction, average home value increases, blackout risk reductions, and more. They also have a generous referral bonus that past customers and community members can earn when they generate leads.

Coercive Power evokes fear to influence behavior. Certainly, this type of power has a dark side, and threats of punishment and retaliation are inappropriate. Instead, one can use the promise of a negative outcome or a lost opportunity to get a similar effect.

Example: What will happen if we don’t curtail global climate change? On their website, RayToday explains issues surrounding greenhouse gasses and describes the consequences of inaction. They also list the limited-time benefits of the Federal Solar Tax Credit and show when these benefits disappear.

Expert Power uses the perception of skill and experience to create trust. Lawyers, doctors, and other professionals leverage expert power to both attract new clients and encourage compliance with their professional instructions.

Example: RayToday lists their credentials and professional affiliations at the bottom of their marketing materials and also have posted professionally shot videos showing the installation process and the high-quality equipment used.

Legitimate Power uses elected, appointed, or recognized authority to generate compliance. In a capitalist market, most companies are in no position to exercise legitimate power over customers. One can, however, make reference to appropriate laws and governing bodies that do have authority.

Example: In their content marketing, RayToday describes the treaties and commitments that the United States has made relating to emissions reductions, including the Paris Agreement, and shows how their services contribute to those goals.

Informational Power occurs when a foundation of knowledge and data lets people draw their own conclusions or be persuaded through their own education. This type of power takes longer to influence people but can signal a significant change in thought and behavior over generations.

Example: Their extensive blog makes RayToday’s site a resource for information about sustainable energy, PV and storage technology, and the environment. They make use of interactive data visualizations to show average household savings from installing solar + storage and teach their employees important statistics about greenhouse gas emissions.

Each customer will respond to the bases of social power listed above in different ways. Some people just want the financial benefits and don’t care about ideology; others are willing to spend their money just to participate in something they believe is right. A strong brand story includes approaches to all these social powers and allows marketers and salespeople to flexibly adopt the ones appropriate for each customer. A powerful brand story doesn’t force people to act against their will; rather, it encourages cooperation by identifying opportunities for social power and using them in a multi-pronged approach.