Narrative Strategies for Brand Building Part I: What is Brand Storytelling, Really?

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Duke Greenhill
Duke Greenhill



narrative-strategies-for-brandsWhat is brand storytelling, really? There’s a lot of hype around it these days. But in a business context, what does “storytelling” really mean? And more importantly, what’s the net takeaway of all the discourse surrounding it?

When seeking to align on what something really means, when all else fails, ask Merriam. According to Merriam-Webster, storytelling is: (1) the accounting of events or incidents, and (2) the stating of facts pertinent to solving a particular question.

The second definition is the most relevant in a business context, considering that the ultimate goal of brand marketing and corporate communications is to convince target consumers that they (still) need the brand. Likewise, “brand storytelling” really means the accounting of facts that solve the question: “Why do I (the consumer) need the brand?” The unspoken part of that mandate, of course, is to do so with creativity, innovation, utility and entertainment value. A difficult challenge to be sure. But when planned and executed well, thoughtful brand storytelling can increase revenue and brand value.

Some take issue with this definition of brand storytelling because they see it as diminishing the creativity involved in the process. If storytelling is just the stating of pre-existing facts and ideas, we’re not talking about generating (read: creating) a new idea. We’re talking about articulating an idea that already exists. This of course is no truer than to say a sculptor doesn’t create anything because he or she merely chips away what is not part of their vision.

Make no mistake about it. Good brand storytelling does articulate pre-existing ideas — not just the corporate stakeholders’ ideas of what the brand is or the public’s idea of it, but also what both corporate and the public imagine (or hope) the brand will become. Such large-scale storytelling, like any massive construction, requires a proven, strong foundation. It’s because of this that we choose tested narrative strategies on which to build brand stories and minimize risk.

And what are narrative strategies? Narrative strategies, or “story systems,” are structures that have developed naturally over the course of mankind’s storytelling history. They’ve been carved into our cognitive landscape like a canyon by a relentless river over time. Because they have evolved with us, they carry with them innate power. They allow us to comprehend the deeper meaning of stories — and multiple story layers — quicker and more effortlessly because in a very real way, they are a part of us. They are one of the marketer’s greatest weapons because these narrative strategies allow brands to convey more, more persuasively, more cost-effectively and with near-guaranteed engagement.

So what are these magical story systems? Well, they’re not magic. They’re familiar. But familiar is incredibly powerful to a marketer. Consider these two case studies:

1. Apple. When Apple was a young brand, it had great difficulty breaking into the market. IBM had a corner on everything. Apple understood narrative strategy, however, and knew that it needed a good brand story. It also knew that every good story has a bad guy. In their seminal TV spot, “1984,” Apple painted user-unfriendly personal computers (read: IBM) as a great, Orwellian oppressor. Apple, of course, enters the story in the form of a huge-breasted, sledgehammer-wielding supermodel and annihilates IBM. Since then, Apple has virtually owned the cutting-edge, cool corner of the tech sandbox.

2. Proclamation Jewelry. A year ago, Proclamation Jewelry was an extremely high-end men’s fine jewelry purveyor whose business model was to provide boldly designed pieces with higher quality gems and materials at a price point far lower than its primary competitors; however, for a year, they had found it impossible to engage consumers and make the target audience aware of their offering.

Proclamation realized that the only way it was going to break through was to devise a brand story that actually included the consumer as a main character. They did exactly that. They created a brand story based on Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth” (more on this in part II) in which the consumer was not only a character, but the hero. The jewelry became a tool or weapon (what Campbell calls the “Supernatural Aid”) that empowered the consumer to become and express his true self. This year, Proclamation’s sales are already triple what they were the same time the year before.

But these are just two simplified examples of how applying a good storytelling technique to brand communications can affect the bottom line. To better understand the combined art and science of brand storytelling and how to use it to achieve results requires many more words than can fit here.

That’s why in “Part II: The Brand Story Package,” we will look at four key successful brand narrative strategies: (1) the creation story, (2) the purpose story, (3) the quest story and (4) the sequel.

And in “Part III: The 5 Building Blocks of Brand Stories,” we will look at the five key components to any successful brand narrative strategy: (1) the hero, (2) the foil (bad guy), (3) the conflict, (4) the solution and (5) the change.

Both parts are coming soon, so stay tuned.

Topics: Branding

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