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Horizontal vs. vertical storytelling: The secret to Walmart’s brand storytelling success

Screenshot of Walmart's brand storytelling page

During my years working for and with Walmart (a Brightspot customer), what I found to be most impressive about the company and its people was their fierce determination to do the right thing. From helping New Orleans recover after Katrina, to providing meaningful job opportunities for veterans, to taking a principled stand on a divisive social issue, I always admired how deeply the company cared about doing the right thing.

But unless you were a part of the company, it was easy to overlook all the good work Walmart was doing because the company just didn’t publicize it. They focused on doing the good work instead of telling the story about the work. As a result, what I heard A LOT during my time at Walmart was: “You should really tell your story, because the work you’re doing is incredible.”

So why were so many people unfamiliar with Walmart’s story of doing good? For starters, the company had very humble beginnings and was hesitant to tell its own story. That reluctance was still firmly in place when I arrived in 2009. By then, critics of the company had a very long headstart on weaving a negative narrative of the organization that was frequently accepted as reality. Additionally, because of its sheer size, when it came to brand storytelling Walmart had a tendency to tell vertical stories.

What is vertical storytelling?

If you haven't heard of “vertical stories” don’t despair—it was a new term for me too until about a year ago. While there are advantages to vertical storytelling, this excerpt from Max Florschutz’s blog summed up our challenge:

“The more vertical you get, the vaster the world your story takes place in becomes. If you’re building a world you can lose yourself in, and the reader’s going to hear a lot about it, then you’re going to have a story that’s vertical.”

That sounded pretty good to me. I mean don’t you want to lose yourself in the story you’re reading? Explore a new world and experience new things? Well, here’s the flip-side and the danger of going too vertical with your storytelling:

“ ... some argue that vertical is solely reserved for content that does not move the story forward, but instead serves as extraneous stuff that may be nice, but isn’t needed. ”

In my own words, I would describe vertical storytelling as a really long read that gets super granular and results in one of two things:

  1. The reader gains so much in-depth knowledge into a specific topic that they become a subject matter expert after reading it
  2. The reader falls asleep because there was no end to the story (and, unless it’s bedtime, who is really trying to tell stories that put people to sleep?)

Vertical storytelling at Walmart

Quite frankly, I think we excelled at vertical storytelling at Walmart. We literally worked on programs that could change the world for the better. Typically, those initiatives and announcements were massively complex and at times, it was easy to get too focused on minute details. We were so proud of whatever we were working on that we wanted you to read EVERY SINGLE DETAIL, just like we had.

As a result, while we taught our readers everything their brains needed to know, we failed to connect our work and our stories to a value to our readers' hearts. We neglected to give our audience a reason to believe. Obviously, our vertical stories did a lot to impress media, NGOs, and other elite audiences, but they failed to capture the true essence of the company. They didn’t reveal what was in our heart and that’s what was important for our associates, our customers, and other key audiences. Our brand storytelling lacked the why. In some cases, we connected the what and the why but it was still unclear how several disparate commitments tied back to one value.

Walmart goes horizontal

Not too long ago, Walmart hired a new Chief Communications Officer, Brian Besanceney, who introduced us to the concept of horizontal storytelling. While I believe the original concept of horizontal storytelling comes from David Smooke, Brian was the first to introduce the concept to me.

Here’s how Kim Palagyi defines it:

Horizontal branding is the broadening of a brand’s capacity to open a new world, beyond developing a singular, vertical product or concept. Similarly, horizontal storytelling capitalizes on all aspects of a brand’s potential, to deliver products and concepts that come from the same unified story.

It definitely wasn’t one of those lightbulb-going-off kind of moments. Brian explained it a couple times and we had several teams run off in pursuit of decoding the mystery of horizontal storytelling. He explained it again and we still couldn’t crack the code. (Side note - this is an example of change taking time. We all wanted to do it but we needed to change our way of working.) Then one day, just like they did in “Field of Dreams,” the cosmic tumblers fell into place and we knew what Brian was talking about.

For Walmart, horizontal storytelling meant we had to keep telling our brand story, but we had to make sure every story connected back to that one belief, the one intrinsic value we knew Walmart stood for. We wanted everyone to know about that fierce determination to do the right thing.

Don’t we all know that The Coca-Cola Company stands for happiness and P&G loves moms? I’m over-simplifying but hopefully you get my point. Regardless of the story, regardless of the medium we used to tell the story, and independent of the platform we used to distribute the story, we needed to pull through one common theme in all of our brand storytelling: Walmart has your back and you can count on us to do the right thing.

Rather than going vertical and taking our readers 20,000 leagues under the sea, we tried to orient our stories more horizontally. We provided enough details for readers to understand the substance of the issue, but more importantly, we injected emotion and demonstrated our empathy to validate the idea that people could count on Walmart to have their back.

So ask yourself - what do you stand for? What does your brand stand for? Once your audience gets through all the blogs, videos, infographics, and podcasts, what’s the one truism people will point to and say, “they stand for ___________!”

I think you’ll still find the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So remember, not all stories are created equal. The next time you sit down to craft a piece of content that supports your brand story, think about taking a horizontal approach and let someone else handle the vertical storytelling.

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