The power of consumer generated storytelling for heritage brands in online communication

15th May




Written by Sandra Leuenberger


The power of consumer generated storytelling for heritage brands in online communication

“Since 1884”, a promise of longevity, tradition, and craftsmanship. Famous brands like Patek Philippe (watches) and Johnnie Walker (whisky) use their long tradition and heritage as the main aspect of their positioning strategy. Those are called heritage brands (Urde et al., 2007). In recent years – the era of increased online communication – they have been confronted with the decision for or against using online marketing tools, like most other brands. But for heritage brands, this decision has been a bit more difficult. Does today’s social media fit with their promise of heritage and traditional values? How can typical heritage brands stay relevant in the era of online communication? How can they transfer their long-time developed values and track records to the new digital communication tools? The answer is storytelling.

Storytelling has received a lot of attention over the last few years. Especially with content marketing currently being one of the hot topics (Waggener Edstrom Communications, 2014). But why is exactly this tool so powerful for heritage brands? This is the question this article is going to take a closer look at, from a theoretical angle and by looking at the case of Victorinox.

Storytelling as a marketing tool

Accompanied by the rise of online communication, storytelling has been acknowledged as an important branding tool particularly since the early years of the new millennium (i.a. Brown et al., 2003; Escalas, 2004; Woodside et al., 2008). Big brands made headlines with campaigns based on storytelling, three of the most famous examples being Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Stories, Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches and Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign.

A brand story, just as most other stories, contains a plot, characters, a climax, and an outcome that causes empathy in listeners and helps them to remember the story (Woodside, 2010; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). They can thus be used to create a rich and clear knowledge structure in consumer memory (Keller, 1993) and “help build awareness, comprehension, empathy, recognition, recall, and provide meaning to the brand” (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012, p. 189).

Because people interpret the meaning of their experiences by fitting their interpretations into stories, the bond between consumers and the brand can be tightened (Escalas, 2004). Also, by creating compelling brand stories, firms provide consumers with a theme for conversation. Through these conversations, the relationship between the consumer and the brand as well as among consumers themselves can be strengthened (Escalas, 2004; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012).

Simply put, the power of storytelling is to provide meaning as well as empathy to the brand and thus strengthen customer–brand and customer–customer relationships (Escalas, 2004; Woodside, 2010; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). With the rise of online communication and online marketing efforts, the role of consumers in storytelling has changed and opened up new opportunities.

Storytelling – even more powerful online

Until recently, content, production, and distribution of stories were dominated by firms (Brown et al., 2003). Today, online communication allows companies to make use of user generated content (Liu-Thompkins & Rogerson, 2012). Online discussion forums, blogs, social media platforms, and sharing sites provide networking opportunities and facilitate interactions between brands and consumers. They build the basis for co-creation. Consumers are not passive listeners anymore. They can take the role of active participants, engaging in storytelling themselves. This provides consumers with a more important voice and enables them to influence the brand (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012; Gensler et al., 2013). The online interactions of firms and consumers can even go further than the mere creation of brand stories. When consumers and firms build on each other’s stories, interaction is taken to an even higher level (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). For consumers, this participation and the act of engaging in storytelling can be an important aspect of developing their own identity (Holt, 2002; Escalas, 2004; Woodside et al. 2008).

But why is consumer generated storytelling so important? Research has shown that such stories have a greater influence for three main reasons: Firstly, consumers tend to create narratives and dramas. Those are more persuasive than plain facts (Deighton et al., 1989; Escalas, 2004). Secondly, their stories are often more easily retrieved from memory because they include touch points to the lives of the readers and cause awareness and emotional understanding (Woodside, 2010). And thirdly, consumer generated content enhances authenticity and thus tightens the bond between consumers and the brand (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Credibility and trustworthiness can be built.

Heritage brands and their inhibitions towards online communication

 Despite the advantages just mentioned, many heritage brands have been reluctant in taking on online marketing tools and fully entering the world of social media and user generated content. A main reason is their fear of alienating their brand positioning strategy by breaking with traditions (Okonkwo, 2010 cited in Morley & McMahon, 2011). Also, user generated content in general bears the risk of losing control over the brand (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2010).

So, why is online storytelling – especially if it is done by consumers – so valuable for heritage brands despite the inhibitions many of those brands have towards online communication? Taking a deeper look at the nature of a typical heritage brand will shed some light on this issue.

 Heritage brands and consumer generated storytelling – A perfect fit for Victorinox

Heritage brands are brands with a positioning and a value proposition based on their heritage. Being a heritage brand is therefore a strategic decision. But even though it might seem as if those brands are stuck in the past, they are not. Heritage clarifies and makes the past relevant to the present and the future (Urde et al., 2007).

There are five elements which distinguish heritage brands from others (Urde et al., 2007):

  • Longevity and consistency,
  • long-held and articulated core values,
  • use of symbols which signify what the company stands for,
  • history as an important part of identity,
  • and track record showing that  the  company has lived up to its values and promises over time.


Fig.        SEQ Fig. \* ARABIC     1       Brand heritage (Urde et al., 2007, fig.1).

Fig. 1 Brand heritage (Urde et al., 2007, fig.1).

All those elements can be more or less pronounced in heritage brands. The one this article is taking a closer look at, is Victorinox.

Victorinox – famous for their Swiss Army Knife – are a family company with a history dating back to 1884 when Karl Elsener founded a cutler’s workshop (Victorinox, 2014a). Looking at the five elements of brand heritage, one can clearly see that Victorinox is a heritage brand (Victorinox, 2010, 2014a, 2014b):

  • Longevity: The company was founded in 1884 and has been family owned ever since.
  • Core values: The three core values tradition, quality, and pioneering spirit have been a crucial part of Victorinox since their early years.
  • Use of symbols: They use the Swiss Army brand and shield logo as a sign of quality and traditional heritage.
  • Identity: History is important to the company’s identity, as it is mentioned in most branded texts as well as it is represented in the slogan “Companion for Life”.
  • Track record: The company can look back on 130 years of success without major scandals or problems.

And this is how Victorinox employ storytelling in their online communication strategy:

“It was the fall of 1966 and I was hunting caraboo for my winter food supply while living in Central Alaska. I had hiked many miles over the open tundra…”  (Victorinox consumer Dannybell, 2012).

These are the first sentences of a story written by a consumer of Victorinox on the Victorinox Storytelling Platform. As part of their “Companion for Life” campaign, the company provide their consumers with an online storytelling platform where they can express experiences in which Victorinox products played a vital role. Since the launch of the platform in 2012, 217 stories have been created in 7 different languages (Victorinox, 2014c). The stories are about memorable, often dramatic, experiences and in some of them, the products even save lives.

A small number of stories can be listened to on the website. The narrative is accompanied by the written story itself as well as pictures of landscapes and artefacts crucial in the story. Each of those audio stories ends with the signature of the consumer telling the experience. This adds credibility and creates trust.

The featured stories are linked to a specific product or product category in order for the consumer to find the main artefact of the story and ideally transfer the emotions into buying intentions. Also included is the Facebook share button, which makes it easy to share the stories via social media and thus keep the brand relevant. Victorinox also take advantage of the possibility to use storytelling on multiple channels at the same time. With the company being present on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, they make it easy for consumers to interact with the brand and, as a possible consequence, engage in storytelling.

In order to share a story, consumers have to create an account which allows to post and rate reviews, share stories, and receive other benefits. This requisition makes it possible for the company to monitor the content shared on their website and minimize the disadvantages of consumer generated storytelling.

The main advantage of the Victorinox Storytelling Platform is that the stories communicate the company’s track record in an emotional and authentic way. They represent the company’s longevity and the 130 years of success they can look back on.

    Fig.        SEQ Fig. \* ARABIC     2       Victorinox Storytelling Platform (Victorinox, 2014c).


Fig. 2 Victorinox Storytelling Platform
(Victorinox, 2014c).


Heritage is supposed to add authenticity and credibility to a brand’s value proposition (Urde et al., 2007). Combining it with storytelling – itself providing authenticity (Fournier & Avery, 2011) –strengthens the effect. The result is a stronger relationship between the brand and its consumers (Urde et al., 2007).

Due to some of the stories being about experiences in the far past, the history of the brand can be transmitted without making use of the quite common “History page”. The stories provide a connection between the brand’s past (the heritage and the story told), its present (the story being told) and its future (due to the stories being positive). Apart from that, the company’s core values – tradition, quality, and pioneering spirit (Victorinox, 2010 & 2014b) – are reinforced and their identity is strengthened. The importance of their products in historic as well as more recent events is shown in the stories and the slogan “Companion for Life” comes to life.

To sum up the main points:

  1. The combination of consumer generated storytelling and heritage enhance the creation of authenticity and credibility.
  2. The five elements of brand heritage can be strengthened due to the nature of the stories.
  3. Implementing a possibility to monitor the content can minimize risks for the brand and help heritage brands in their decision to fully embrace online communication.
  4. Well-presented stories will be shared online and thus contribute to keeping the heritage brand relevant in both the present and the future. 

And the moral of this story…

The example of the Victorinox Storytelling Platform shows that consumer generated storytelling is a powerful way for heritage brands to communicate their heritage, take it into the future and benefit from various effects those stories have on the consumer–brand relationship.

Consumer generated storytelling online can not only be used as an interesting addition to a company’s “History” page. It is a major help in keeping a heritage brand relevant in the era of online communication. It allows heritage brands to combine the past, the present, and the future – exactly what those brands are based upon.

A question that could be raised is whether the loyal consumers who did not grow up with the internet, will be following the new online developments. Is consumer generated storytelling nonetheless an advantage in relation to this target group? Might it even create a link between these consumers and the new generation of digital natives?


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