Brand Storytelling

August 02, 2013

Did you know that the earliest forms of branding involved a hot iron and humans? The concept of branding back then was limited to a mark of recognition, a visual identifier to help their respective owner know which human belonged to them, similar to what was practiced with livestock! Imagine being asked to do a develop brand identity in that era! Lucky for us those times are over! Today branding has evolved significantly to mean something that is more than just a trademark, to a set of emotional and functional associations that are actively sought by their owner or passively created by the users owing to the actions of that brand.

Unlike branding, storytelling however has been something that has remained largely unchanged in it’s essence. Always captivating our imaginations, it has been the defining tool through which the human race has passed on the many mythologies, folklore, tales and stories that have captured our history and our fictional narrative. Even the books of God have inspired faith through the power of stories. No wonder they say our brains are organized around the narrative. But for many centuries these two worlds did not collide but coexisted in their own tight little domains.

A number of events have contributed to this co-existence. One of the biggest drivers is probably related to the fact that the “world has become flat.” The tools of creation and communication have become abundant. Anyone can tell their story, is empowered to do so and can ensure a worldwide reach. With more people connected than anytime in the history of our world unique opportunities have been created for people to exchange ideas. Brands are competing on those grounds. Media has proliferated countlessly. The same traditional channels of reach no longer work in isolation. People’s interest and eyeballs have shifted to more interactive media allowing them to control what they view and when.

From a commercial perspective, the challenges for business have further compounded. Brands have also increased their reach owing to improvements in the supply chain, thereby enabling global competition. Now one doesn’t have to just worry about competitors within their national boundary. With a plethora of players to compete with and a highly fragmented media landscape a shouting match does not guarantee a win! Brands cannot survive by simply focusing on driving recall. To just bombard and cajole the name of the brand as many times as possible in a piece of communication and sometimes even as a jingle. To always show the product in the context of consumption and nothing else. How can this approach keep working when there are hundreds of brands in each category doing the same? Unfortunately many brands are still living in this world.

Enter the world of brand storytelling. A world where advertising has transformed into desirable content that viewers actively seek out (think GoPro) and gladly share through their own social media channels (think of the last commercial video you saw on Facebook). A world where brands become publishers and customers become distributors. How are so many brands doing it and doing it so well? Pulling together some of the key lessons from the Cannes Lions seminars this year here are what the best brand storytellers are doing!

“Define your enemy”

To stand out brands need to stand for something – brand positioning 101. In the world of brand storytelling that something is your fight! For consumers to build a strong coherent emotional relationship with a brand a consistent storytelling platform is needed. This need not be something very complex and convoluted. It simply is a clear one word definition of your enemy. This approach is the guiding structure of so many of our favorite stories. Look back at some of the latest hollywood summer flicks and you realize how the greatest hits have the greatest enemy. The bigger the enemy the more captivating the story and brighter our hero shines through in the end. The same can be said for brands. Defining the enemy gives focus and structure to brand stories. Let’s look at some examples!

The brand Dove – what are they fighting for? Their enemy is conformity. Who says beauty has to be as what other beauty brands have made it out to be. They fight this notion of beauty to prove to their target that they are truly beautiful in more ways than they realize. What about Nike? What is the spirit behind their mantra of “just do it”. Their enemy is lethargy. The Nike brand is fighting lethargy and doing whatever it can do to inspire you, to get you moving. Here is one example of how they told us their story.

Of course finding the right enemy is easier said than done. To find a simple, singular enemy that is worthy of destroying, is relevant to the target and will make the brand hero shine once all is said and done over and over again can be a challenging task! Once done this is half the battle won!

From this point on it’s all about craftsmanship. The right team of storytellers getting their heads together to do magic. Again very nice to hear in theory. Although the onus of driving this fight lies with the brand owner. Bringing it to life lies with the other end of the marketing spectrum. The “Mad Men” of our world. Except for a few swashbuckling giants, at least in the emerging world, this kind of talent has only begun to spring up and take up the world of content for brands. So what are they doing right?

‘If the story has an emotional connection the success will follow’

One of the key elements of great stories is their ability to engage emotions. A story without emotion is not a story, it’s a documentary or a product demo. Building the brand narrative around a plot using the enemy as the main antagonist naturally enables the brand to evoke emotion and make the story more memorable. Here is an example from Intel. Can you guess the enemy they are fighting?*

“You remember your own stories way more than stories you’re told”

The challenge here is invite participation. To involve the viewer and make them own the story. In behavioral economics there is principle knowns as “not-invented-here” bias. This is our instinctive response to reject new ideas if we don’t own them or are not involved in their creation. Great stories have the potential to involve the viewer in multiple ways. One way is to excite our mirror neurons and make them relatable in a way that makes us live the story just the way movies do. Another way for brands to ensure authenticity is involve customers directly into the story. Here is one example of how Dove involved it’s customers and made it their story.

 “The stuff that goes viral is the stuff that’s authentic”

There is lot of content out there that is thinly veiled advertising. Today customers have an astute B.S. indicator. Fake doesn’t stand a chance. Being fake here means being disrespectful, assuming the customer can be manipulated by a sales pitch camouflaged as a story rather than truly involving and engaging them with the brand. It’s like when brands emotionally reward their customers they thank the brand by buying from them. Although many brands have delivered brand stories that are a work of fiction but feel real just as a Hollywood flick can overwhelm you with emotions (remember the last time a movie made you cry). Great plots have the ability to immerse and carry you away but for brands to do that they have to remain true to their larger purpose and the enemy they have chosen to fight. A surefire way of doing that is to tackle real issues with real people. Here is a great example of a brand that did exactly that:

So here it is. You are on your way to becoming a brand storyteller. All you have to do is find a team of writers and producers who can craft a good story concept and deliver a flawless execution. If you are expecting the same from your advertising agency. Good Luck! This kind of craftsmanship is largely lacking in the agency world. I would leave this topic for another blog post. But to state it simply there is a need for copywriters and art directors to reinvent themselves as screenplay writers and producers. Or agencies need to get that kind of talent on board. Until this is not achieved a brand can’t really tell a good story.

*I think the enemy Intel is fighting is “Invisibility”
Feature image by 09BushK used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

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