Storytelling is the latest, greatest strategy buzzword. Following on right behind disruption, innovation, creativity and even thinking. Storytelling is the new black. Storytelling is nothing really new to the creative community; any good brand creative knows a brand is only as good as the deep emotional connection it makes with its audience. And what better way to do that than through a story. So what are the components of a great brand story and how do you create one?
It doesn’t matter at this stage whether you’re writing a press release or crafting a brand relaunch after a reputation disaster. The components are the same.
1. A Begining, Middle & End
A good story has structure. Every story needs a beginning, middle, and an end. And every scene in that story has those same three elements. If you don’t build those elements, the story doesn’t work.
The brand story of Levi Strauss started with a man who cared deeply about his community and wanted to create a hard-wearing product in which people could work to keep out the cold. Community has always been at the heart of the brand. It’s story is irretrievable interwoven with the arrival of ‘teenagers’ in the world, and rebellion and individualism. It’s also the story of a brand which leverages the power of tv advertising, fell from grace and found a way to rebuild itself and find a new place in the hearts and minds of young people.
The brand story of Jamie Oliver is of a boy-done-good. A honest, man of the people, one of us, just like you. Who believes that everyone should have access to a good, honest, nutritious plate of food. Which makes basic plain crockery right; a fight for school dinners authentic, and cookbooks that helps us make good food in 15 minutes ‘right up his street’. Along with his cockney accent. Although in latter years, we’ve begun to suspect it’s a bit fake…..
2. Well Defined Characters (archetypes)
Just as important as that simple structure are the characters. Without a well-defined protagonist (hero) or antagonist (villain), there is little to hold your interest in the story. We need someone to root for — or to rally against.
The story of Virgin Atlantic is of an underdog fighting for the cause of the people; wanting to bring the big, bad uncaring giant to its knees – British Airways in this case. Richard Branson was the hero, Lord King and his later successors – the villains.
The story of Steve Jobs is of a visionary and maverick hero, undone by a wicked board, returning in triumph to lead his business to world domination and success.
The story of the Gates Foundation is of tycoon turned philanthropist, of the fight of right, man against disease.
And there are often other important characters as well. There’s The Sidekick — where would Han Solo be without Chewbacca? Batman without Robin? Or at one time Steve Jobs without Steve Wozniak.
Add in a mentor or guiding figure: Merlin to King Arthur, Gandalf to Frodo, Eleanor Roosevelt to Franklin until she became a hero in her own right! Jeremy Fry mentored Sir James Dyson; Peter Drucker to author Jim Collins; Freddie Laker to Sir Richard Branson; Andrew Carnegie mentored Charles Schwab. And on.
3. A Clear Theme
Equally important is a story’s theme. A theme is like a controlling idea which is used to tell the emotional lesson of a story. It’s the writer or brand’s view of the proper way to act in the world. It’s about the moral argument you present. At its heart, a theme is basic and straightforward but it contains a big moral dilemma to think about.
However creative we are, there are really only 7 basic types of story themes: The Fight Against the Monster: David & Goliath, the underdog, crime does not pay, love always wins. Rebirth & Renewal: hard choices, the phoenix rising from the ashes, Prudential’s brand is built on ‘life begins at 60’. The Quest: IBM making a better planet, most charitable and social enterprise brands. There and Back Again: Expedia has built its whole brand on the transformation of the travel experience. From Rags To Riches. Comedy and Tragedy – although the last isn’t that popular in the brand-storysphere.
4. The Plot
Finally, but also as important as the three elements above, is the plot. This defines the journey the characters are on. The course by which the story unfolds. The challenges that the hero must face and, ultimately, overcome. The twists and turns that capture our imagination and offer us enough surprises and rewards to make this story — hopefully — different than any other story we’ve ever heard.
How do you tell a brand story?
How does the story of a brand get told in a way that doesn’t come across sounding as if some second rate PR spin-doctor got hold of it and lobbed in a few cliched handgrenades?
Every story starts with a title. Little Red Riding Hood. In branding, the title is the brand name or trademark. Nike (the winged messenger). Virgin (new/fresh) Atlantic (a new way of flying across the Atlantic). As hard as it often is to come up with the name, the rest of the brand is the real story to be told.
Where are the beginning, middle, and end? The hero? The villain? What’s the theme and the plot?
The story could start with the introduction of a new branded product which is part of an existing brand (Magnum Double Peanut Butter). Or maybe it’s when the company’s ex-president returned to re-launch the company (aka Jobs and Apple). The middle part can be as easy as a start-up’s rags-to-riches climb to success, a social enterprise’s hard-fought victory to get funding, or the individual author’s struggles on the road to success (JK Rowling).
The ending to almost any brand’s story is, hopefully, a happy one, with loyal, trusting and committed consumers and an increase in profits. Or a charity’s victorious struggle to enact new animal welfare laws (Compassion in World Farming). A country’s successful battle against disease (Ebola) or a piece of technology so revolutionary it changes the way rainforests are protected.
The hero could be the company with the brand (CocaCola goes back to the original recipe). A brave, courageous startup going up against a megalithic company (Nokia vs LowdownApp or Unilever vs Hampton Creek).
The protagonist could be the product itself – like Google Glass, although that didn’t have a happy ending! Or the customer who needs the product to slay the dragons keeping him from getting his work done: Productivity Courses are here to save hard working heros from burn out after all!
The heart of a brand, or the theme it lives its life within is often summarised in a compelling tagline: FedEx’s The World on Time; Nike’s Just Do It; L’Oreal’s Because You’re Worth It; Red Bull Gives You Wings. A really good strapline summarizes the story the brand is trying to tell.
Finally, a good plot is what you should strive to create, as it makes the brand compelling. Define the moments along the hero’s journey or the path from rags to riches; add layers and richness as you go. Always end chapters and start new ones, adding to the plot with every sub story you create. Virgin Atlantic lived for years off the idea that it was doing battle with an evil giant. Becuase You’re Worth It hasn’t paled into insignificance because many women fight a daily battle with self-esteem which makes the territory rich and sustainable.
And that’s how you think about your company or personal story. Build your own Legend.