Storytelling predates writing; the earliest forms were spoken, combined with gestures and expressions. They include fairy tales, myths, legends and many of religious origin. There is much to learn from stories and with brand storytelling it is possible to transform a brand from a frog to a prince, prolong brand life and even slay a competitor or two in the process.
Great stories endure
Saint George (AD 280 to 23 April 303), for example, is immortalised in the myth of Saint George and the Dragon. A soldier in the Roman army, he later became venerated as a Christian martyr and adopted as patron saint of many countries, cities and organisations. The story about George and the Dragon returned from the Crusades (11th Century). In the legend, the dragon lives at a water hole and requires a gift of a sheep or maiden to allow the locals to reach the water. When it is a maiden, they draw lots. One day a princess is chosen. She begs for her life but to no avail. Then George comes along, slays the dragon and saves the day.
Great stories are retold
Great stories touch and move us. Particularly when seen in a cinema, and increasingly through mini movies – as some television advertising has become. Not only do great stories engage, but they merit retelling and sharing. In this rich digital media world (1), we are all writers, photographers, producer/directors and editors. Only the best stories grab attention, are ‘liked’ and shared.
It is the same for brands. Only the best impress journalists, trade buyers and of course, consumers. Some brands have become great by telling great stories. Some are born of reality, many of accident or serendipity and some invention.
Great stories offer inspiration for brands
Figure 1 shows a typical cinematic story structure. This is useful for brand storytelling. Act 1 involves setting the scene, introducing the characters, conflict and setting. It concludes with a climax or set-back (turning point 1 (TP1)). Act 2 develops the story, with rising action and tension, and concluding with another climax or set-back (turning point 2 (TP2)). In the last act, the dénouement, the story reaches a final climax, and the story resolved.
Great stories tend to recognise deep truths, important life lessons
For example, that good always triumphs over evil. That every cloud has a silver lining – i.e. that you can derive some benefit from every bad thing that happens to you. Or that fortune favours the brave – that drive and determination is essential to success. Christopher Booker’s Jungian-influenced analysis of stories and their psychological meaning, espoused seven basic plots (2). Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson highlight eighteen, eight guides or gifts and ten warnings (3). Figure 2 shows eight familiar stories mapped to Mark and Pearson’s need-states.
‘Transformations’ deal with significant change in attitude, behaviour or personal growth. ‘Overcoming the Monster’ stories are crime and adventure staples. They feature archetypal heroes (and villains). Including George and the Dragon. Also James Bond vs. Scaramanga (The Man with the Golden Gun). And Harry Potter, growing from boy to man, while battling Voldemort.
The typical story-line is baddie does bad thing (set-up), goodie fights baddie and loses (story development, set-back) and then goodie digs deeper, fights back and wins the day (dénouement). In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he kills a young maiden and then goes after Harker, the hero’s fiancée. Harker and friends then hunt and eventually kill Dracula thus saving Harker’s fiancée (and allowing them to live happily ever after).
Great brand stories follow from brand archetypes
Brand archetypes can play different roles in narratives, and inspire brand storytelling. In a typical ‘overcoming the monster’ story-line, archetypal heroes, such as James Bond and Harry Potter are protagonists (leading players). Equally the brand could still be the hero, but not the protagonist but instead a bit player – perhaps the protagonist’s assistant or ‘weapon’.
Consider a utilitarian hero archetype, cleaning brand Mr. Muscle. In a typical 3 act story, we see the housewife battling the dirt, getting tired and frustrated at her inability to clean the house etc. until along comes the hero, to clean away the dirt and save the day. The protagonist is the brand user or housewife and the adversary, simply dirt.
Nike is a more inspiring, hero(ine) archetype (4). The protagonists in Nike advertisements are usually athletes or ordinary people, and adversaries, fellow competitors. In a typical 3 act story, we see the athlete competing against another, wearing Nike clothing or using Nike equipment, suffering set-backs yet eventually winning, and winning applause.
The Nike advert (below) features a tennis playing protagonist vilified for being a pretty face. Here the antagonist is not just a fellow competitor but public dismissal, or disdain. All questions confidence in the athlete’s skills. Will she, won’t she succumb to the pressure? Watch the advert to see the dénouement. Feel how the rising tension strengthens the brand story.
Brand Storytelling Marketing Inspiration
Now work through these simple brand storytelling steps to finesse and execute your brand strategy.
1. Understand your brand truth, archetype and positioning
Great brands like great stories are based on great truths. Great truths include customer and brand truths. Look inside and outside your business to find them. Consider what do customers’ really think, believe or need? Is there anything meaningful and true but unknown or disbelieved about your brand? What is your brand founder’s tale? What’s special about where or how it was invented? Perhaps a ‘secret’ production or delivery process or ‘magical’ ingredient? And what’s special about the brand look, livery or the people who make or deliver the brand.
2. Create/shape/select stories to engage and dramatise the brand benefits.
Consider characters, the role of the brand, and how your brand could transform customers’ lives. How can you create rising tension, and a dénouement that fits the brand? Also involve disparate people in the creative process and allow time to nurture the ideas. Figure 3 shows a start-point brand storytelling concept.
3. Express the story idea through multiple media.
While great stories and great brands touch people in different ways, they express a consistent message. Consider how the story could unfold or be presented through different media. Involve media experts in early brand storytelling. Choose media to enhance the message and enable sharing.
(1) According to https://www.internetlivestats.com there are now over 1.1 billion websites including a burgeoning range of social media including Facebook, You Tube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat and many more.
(2) Booker, Christopher The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.
(3) Mark, Margaret and Pearson, Carol S. The Hero & the Outlaw. Building Extraordinary Brands through the Power of Archetypes.
(4) Named after Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.