Keep It Real
Separating Fact from Fiction in Your Brand Story
By Hannah Landers
On New Year’s Eve, the unthinkable happened to a group of tourists in New York City: An undetected home invader violently sexually assaulted a woman in the rental property that she had booked with some friends to ring in the new year.
This may sound more like fodder for a true-crime television series than a workplace discussion, but it’s just one of many similar stories that vacation rental giant Airbnb grapples with on a regular basis. Following the incident described above, which occurred in 2015, the assailant was caught by the police, and Airbnb provided the woman, who had traveled to the states from Australia, with a complimentary trip home and access to any mental or physical health services she needed to recover from the trauma she had experienced. It’s the type of extreme emergency situation that few companies plan for—and one that has plagued the company since its inception; after a presentation with an early potential investor, Airbnb’s founders were turned down, and the investor lamented: “Guys, this is super dangerous. Somebody’s going to get raped or murdered, and the blood is gonna be on your hands.”
Cases like these are entrusted to Airbnb’s “elite trust-and-safety team,” a secretive group within the company about which little is known, even after a Bloomberg investigative piece published in June 2021. Made up of about 100 agents in cities around the world, this safety team manages only Airbnb’s most severe guest issues and has the autonomy within the company to do (and spend) whatever is necessary to care for a victim, no questions asked.
“I had situations where I had to get off the phone and go cry,” one former agent told Bloomberg. “That’s all you can do.”
Thankfully, most organizations don’t need to field a team of elite agents worldwide to deal with worst-case scenarios like this, but every business inevitably grapples with similar—albeit less severe—customer issues when the disconnect between the brand’s promise and the reality experienced by the customer is so significant and jarring it causes a major problem. Airbnb has built its brand on the promise of a fantastic, idealized version of society, where strangers open their residences to others, and people can travel freely and inexpensively without the fear that might normally accompany landing in an unknown house in a strange neighborhood within a foreign city. The type of promise Airbnb makes to its customers—ignorant of the challenges inherent in its business model—is increasingly common in brands seeking to disrupt staid industries. Airbnb chooses to tell a story rooted in fantasy, one that puts its customers in danger every time they book their next vacation.
When a brand tells its story to its audience, the only thing more critical than that story’s efficacy is its authenticity. Fanciful imagery, aspirational calls to adventure, and other fantastical elements can certainly draw customers into a brand’s narrative, but they must be anchored in reality: a promise the brand can commit to, deliver on, and be transparent about in the context of the larger world.
This disconnect is prominent in the growing number of brands competing for dominance in the electric vehicle (EV) industry, the most notable of which is Tesla. Beyond the antics of company founder Elon Musk, Tesla has built its story on the potential of EVs to create environmental change on a scale much larger than what customers park in their driveway. “Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy,” the company’s website proudly states. “Tesla believes the faster the world stops relying on fossil fuels and moves toward a zero-emission future, the better.”
While Tesla has invested little in traditional marketing or advertising, the brand has made a conscious choice to root its story in the idea that EVs (and Teslas in particular) have the power to bring about a better, more sustainable future for the world. Following the launch of its first car aimed at the mass market, the Model 3, the company announced: “With Tesla building its most affordable car yet, Tesla continues to make products accessible and affordable to more and more people, ultimately accelerating the advent of clean transport and clean energy production. Electric cars, batteries, and renewable energy generation and storage already exist independently, but when combined, they become even more powerful—that’s the future we want.”
Using sustainability as a cornerstone of brand messaging certainly makes sense for EV companies like Tesla. As Woden has written, the impact that a company makes on the environment—and the ways in which that company is willing to lessen that impact—has become more and more important in the buying process: According to a survey in Harvard Business Review, 65 percent of consumers reported that they “want to buy from purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability.” These shared beliefs are increasingly important not just to driving sales, but also to maintaining an ongoing relationship with consumers: A 2019 survey by Hotwire revealed that 47 percent of internet users had stopped using services or products from brands that betrayed their personal values. Tesla’s promise of a world free of carbon emissions does more than just make its customers feel good about their own decisions; it convinces them they are part of a transformation toward a world where fossil fuels are a distant memory.
Lesser-known EV brands have adopted this positioning as well. California-based company Fisker has developed an EV called Ocean, a crossover that boasts: “All-Electric. Zero-Emissions.” Although Fisker emphasizes the luxury aspects of its story by highlighting the car’s elegant and thoughtful design (The brand’s tagline reads: “We make this sustainability thing look good.”), it also emphasizes the ways in which those who purchase its vehicles can gain a deeper connection to the world around them: “We want to electrify you in ways that go beyond plugging into a wall, helping you to not only get where you’re going, but consider the world around you along the way.”
In addition to the sustainable technology under the hood, the Ocean also offers vegan leather seats and integrates upcycled materials like old fishing nets and fibers from unwanted T-shirts—all contributing to its claim that it’s “not even here to make just another EV.” Instead, Fisker pushes its customers to “reimagine not only how we move through the world, but our place within it.”
The purchases that customers choose to make say a lot about who they are. In an interview with Business Insider, Hult International Business School professor Dr. Matt Johnson talked about this connection between brand and self-perception with an example of a consumer who purchased a new Honda Prius: “We may buy a Prius (at least in part) because it is a purchase reliably associated with environmental consciousness, and we want to signal that we’re environmentally conscious.” A 2007 survey of Prius owners reinforced this theory; the top motivations for purchasing the car were because it “makes a statement about me” and that “it shows the world that its owner cares.” Those seeking to purchase a Tesla or a Fisker aren’t necessarily looking for better gas mileage or advanced features any more than Airbnb users are seeking accommodations with lower costs than those associated with traditional lodging. Rather, they purchase a particular EV to communicate to the world that they’re making a difference environmentally and want to play a part in the brand’s promise of bringing about the promised, carbon-free future.
The only problem? It’s a fantasy.
For all of the fanfare about the incredible environmental balm that EVs can be, research indicates that cars themselves are the real scourge—electric or otherwise. Although EVs emit 28 percent less carbon than cars that run on gasoline, the reduction of emissions necessary to make Tesla’s promised future even remotely plausible (55 percent by the year 2030) combined with the larger-scale environmental effects of a car-dependent system (such as urban sprawl) means that simply switching from gassing up to plugging in is not nearly enough.
Although EV companies like Tesla or Fisker promise drivers that their purchase will have a meaningful, positive impact on the environment, it’s simply not true. The clearing of green space for parking lots or increasingly far-flung housing developments, the large number of massive, heat-absorbing asphalt spaces dedicated to those with vehicles, and other such activities release amounts of carbon with the potential to dwarf the 14 percent of worldwide emissions (as of 2010) attributed to transportation alone. While EVs certainly present a better environmental option than the typical gas-guzzling vehicle, the choice to drive an electric car isn’t one that will have a significant impact on combatting climate change, contrary to what Fisker and Tesla are telling their audiences.
In fact, brands like these that leave their story at the glib promise of a magical future do their customers a disservice. They trade on the excitement and promise of a fantasy world, while demanding none of the sacrifice that would be required from their customers to actually achieve it. Canoo, however, proves that there is a more authentic story to tell when it comes to EVs—one that is more rooted in reality.
Canoo has avoided recycling the same sustainability story used by its competitors in favor of one focused on the value it actually delivers for customers: utility and personalization. With a distinctly boxy, snub-nosed look, Canoo’s selection of EVs (which include a pickup, van, and sedan-type model) is matched with messaging meant to empower its drivers, no matter where they’re going: “Driven by technology, Canoo electric vehicles are powered by innovation that puts you in charge,” the website reads. Each vehicle has been designed “to support a wide range of vehicle applications for consumers and businesses.” The pickup model, for example, features hidden storage, various charging ports, and even foldable tables on the exterior. The goal, says Canoo Executive Chairman Tony Aquila, is to “make something that was very functional and could also be personalized.” Canoo is telling a truthful story that it can deliver on for customers, and doing so with a product that may be even more capable of achieving the vision promised by its competitors: After all, more utility per car means fewer cars on the road overall.
Storytelling is the most powerful tool organizations have to build stronger connections with their audiences—whether customers, employees, or even partners or investors. The brands that truly use storytelling to their advantage, however, understand how to negotiate the fine balance between telling a compelling story that inspires those audiences to action within the confines of reality, and one that is rooted in a fantasy world that universally leaves audiences disappointed (or worse). For a brand’s story to have resonance, it must be an authentic expression in every way—a tale that acknowledges the facts, not just the fiction.
Hannah is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Add Hannah on LinkedIn, read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.