What makes a great brand story?

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Storytelling is of course very much an idea whose time has come. And brands are increasingly using story formats to express themselves and to explain their place in the market and the world. But, if I may reference Sheryl Sandberg, what gives a story “lean-in” value?

What makes a great brand story

In this 2012 TED talk, filmmaker Andrew Stanton explains that we humans love stories because of their affirmative value. We need that affirmation, says Stanton, and stories provide that connection. Stories, he says, work across time and allow us to find similarities with others. In his presentation, Stanton draws our attention to six great guidelines:

• Make me care
• Make me a promise right from the start
• Give people enough to put the rest of the story together
• Stories should be inevitable but not predictable
• Stories must mix anticipation with uncertainty
• As a storyteller, your main responsibility is to invoke wonder

They’re great rules. But what do they mean in terms of how we craft the story of a brand? What are the guidelines strategists and brand owners should be using to tell a commercial story? Here’s my list. It’s longer, and it intersects with Stanton’s list in several places. Of course a great brand story may not have all 10 components – but it has enough of them, in a configuration specific to the brand, to give a buyer the reason to believe that they’re looking for.

1. The story has to come from a credible source – buyers need to know the storyteller can be trusted. Your story needs to be consistent with the receiver’s understanding of you because the person telling the story is in a position of trust. They have control of the narrative. To me, this is the make or break of storytelling. If we don’t believe the storyteller, we’ll never believe the story. SouthWest Air have been telling a wacky story about loving to fly for decades. They absolutely walk the talk.

2. The story itself has to be believable – it must fit with, and expand on, what people already believe about your brand and about the human condition. The story must stem from a fundamental truth. It must ring a bell in the universe. Hallmark tells a story of caring and interaction that defies the digital age. It works because the story is true for all of us, and yet different for each of us.

3. It has to be recognisable – the story must be easily identified. The story must be overt enough for everyone to see its influence, yet flexible enough to show its face in different ways. There must be consistency in the narrative and in the basis of the narrative, because that’s what anchors the brand. That’s what makes it tangible in the mind of the buyer. Look at Red Bull. Excitement is woven into every aspect of their narrative.

4. It has to be distinctive – there would be no point in telling someone else’s story or indeed mimicking their story. Your story can’t just be the same as what everyone else offers. So many brands simply try and rearrange the deck chairs. Jeans companies all tell stories about ruggedness and the outdoors. Energy drinks all talk about energy.

5. It has to be imaginative – it must paint pictures in the mind of the recipient of a time that is even better than now. It should be ambitious and bold, striking, even provocative. It should portray your brand as a pioneer and as a brand that is creatively examining tomorrow. Dove’s story of a more natural world, where you should be proud to be as you are, defied editorial convention and in so doing struck a real chord with many women.

6. It has to be specific – it can’t appeal to just anyone. Stories aren’t aimed at everyone because they don’t respond well to being diluted. Your brand’s story should talk to the people you target (and aspire to target) in language and with a vision that fits with their schemas and worldview. Virgin’s story of the underdog is carefully weighted in every market they enter to tell a challenger story. It appeals to those who see themselves as independent thinkers capable of finding what’s best for them. A Virgin story is inevitable whenever the brand enters a market – but the story itself, and the telling of that story, can vary greatly.

7. It has to be consistent – your consumers need to recognise you in the story. If they read a story that carries nothing of the current ‘you’ in it, it will read like a pipe dream. If it reads too much like the business you are, then it suggests business as usual. Your brand story should project to the future but it should do so through the lens of your present reputation and equity. Look at how Disney have evolved their business and yet their story of magic has stayed remarkably steadfast. Theirs truly is a story of wonder.

8. It has to be actionable – Your story needs to make it clear what you expect to see happen. It must show how customers participate. Purchase is how buyers care. Loyalty is the affirmation that people have connected with the brand and all it stands for. Ironically, powerful stories are often not explicit in how they are to be actioned. Instead, they paint the dots and leave it to people to connect them as they wish.

9. It has to be achievable – Your story must be realistic; it can’t just build castles in the air. It needs to stretch the boundaries but it must still feel attainable, or people inside simply won’t be prepared to invest the effort to make it happen. This article by Mark Wilson on the Fast Company site recently details how Cadillac has fought its way back to record sales from the inside-out.

10. It has to be desirable – The psychological carrot must be big enough that reaching for what the story points to must be more compelling than not attempting it. Stories must lead us somewhere – and as Stanton says, that somewhere needs to be somewhere wonderful. The anticipation and the uncertainty of that needs to be wired in. Apple, especially under Steve Jobs, were masters at this. Everyone waited for “just one more thing”. The whole story though must be exciting enough that people want to talk about it with each other. Sharers must also able to justify the story to those around them. Without that, the mandate to act is so much harder to achieve. Sharing a story adds to its credibility and fuels critical mass.

Which brand stories speak most to you? And why?

Photo of “User stories in Oxford” taken by Jacopo Romei (Jakuza), sourced from Flickr

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