The power of a strong brand backstory

The power of a strong brand backstory

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Leveraging a story that everyone knows is powerful – but risky. Powerful, because it’s immediately recognisable. Risky, because unless you can provide a new spin, it’s a tale they already know. Perhaps too well.

Imagine if you’re two of the most famous feuding families in the world. The news that you’re still fighting is no news at all. But the news that you have chosen to bury the pistols and go into business together after 150 years of fighting – now there’s a plot twist right there.  That, it seems, is precisely what the Hatfields and McCoys decided to do: create a whisky under a joint brand that celebrates where they still live and that uses recipes passed down through the generations. A story steeped in history – for tomorrow.

It got me thinking about how brands develop stories, and whether more brands should be reaching into their memories, and ours, to reveal aspects of who they were.

Where does your story start?

Most brands starting out are of course happy to build a new story from scratch, beginning at a certain point and progressing from there, adding twists and turns along the way to keep things interesting and, with any luck, documenting the most memorable moments as they go. Brands with a powerful backstory work completely differently. Here, the story is already mapped through and documented to various states of completion (based on either what really happened or a mythology that the brand has chosen to create). To bring that story alive, incidents and developments must now be revealed over time, not necessarily chronologically, in ways that add to consumers’ understanding. Businesses can also use this technique to excel at business storytelling.

Backstories work because they tell us the stories between the stories.

A backstory in other words is a story of discovery that brings pieces together in ways that come to make sense. Backstories work because they tell us the stories between the stories. It’s a particularly powerful narrative tool for heritage brands because it enables them to directly connect their history with their future. Backstories enable buyers to step back into the company’s journey and see how they became the brand they are today. Or, in the case of the Hatfields and the McCoys, they enable customers to fast-forward from the story they thought they knew. And as with all good tales, the results should be surprising.

There’s a great quote from Alex Bolen, CEO, Oscar de la Renta, in which he explains the relationship between these different times: “People think of innovation and heritage as opposed ideas but I disagree. If we are heritage brands, we stood the test of time because we have [a] tradition of successfully innovating. Innovative companies should aspire to become heritage brands.” Bolen’s observation should form the basis for a great story for brands with time on their side looking to show that their time is far from over. Written into the journey he describes is the natural arc of a story that is human, powerful and grounded –  a story filled presumably with triumph, tragedy, challenge and change. A story that is unique to the brand and yet one we all recognise and are keen to learn more about. Here’s some more ideas on how to tell the world a story.

10 questions to help you shape a compelling backstory

If you’re looking for ways to make your story more exciting, here are 10 questions you can use, in part or together, to shape a backstory that builds on what your customers feel they already know:

  1. How did you get to where you are now – where did your brand start, doing what, with how many people?
  2. What happened along the way that was exciting, weird, fun, challenging, extraordinary?
  3. Who were the main characters – what did they bring to the brand and what did they fail to see? Who proved to be the heroes and the villains?
  4. When did things look impossible – what nearly killed the company, and what happened to save the brand?
  5. Who made the (many) decisions that changed your brand over the years and what were the circumstances?
  6. Why was that important – if the decision was acted on? Where might that have led if others had agreed? (good or bad)
  7. What are some of the side-stories around what your brand is famous for that you can reveal (and were never able to before)?
  8. Which other well-known people/events has the brand been involved with in the course of its history? What was the nature of the brand’s involvement?
  9. How did your journey make you the brand you are?
  10. What signs of your backstory are visible (even celebrated) in your brand today?

Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title How To Build a Strong Brand Backstory.

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