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Brand Storytelling

Crafting A Powerful Brand Story


Facts feel right. They portray the sharer as informed and aware. They give a sense of pragmatism. They quantify and substantiate. But they seldom motivate us to shift from where we are now and what we like now to somewhere new.

That’s one of the roles of stories. And yet stories themselves are now such a commonplace feature of brandspeak that they are in danger of losing their magic. Increasingly they are becoming a catalog of features – a parade of facts – in a narrative format. Shawn Callahan, a marketer whose expertise in this area I very much respect, goes further. When I asked him about this recently, he told me, “Many branding specialists are talking about stories but are not telling any. You have to know what a story is and what it is not. A story has some basic features such as a series of causal events and something unexpected happening. Stories have characters doing things.”

Four things I think marketers need to realize about stories:

1. Storytelling is more than just writing. Increasingly marketers are telling themselves that anything they transcribe is a story. Not so.

2. Content is an expression of story, it is not the story itself. A brand story forms the common reference point that all branded content should report to. The same words or even ideas spread across a range of channels is not a story, it’s a script. Content must collectively capture the breadth and depth of a story if it is to be more than just a collection of common reference points. In that sense, a story is a prism and the content is light. What consumers see at any one point is an aspect. Stories invite discovery.

3. Stories require wonder. Stories are imaginative. They evoke a response that greatly surpasses what people would simply have done with the information alone. The purpose of a story is to inspire and involve. If it lacks that “lean-in” factor, it’s not a story – or at least it’s not a story for that customer. Stories should help marketers deliver moments of wonder to buyers. They don’t just make an impression, they leave an impression.

4. Stories are journeys. If a story doesn’t traverse time, it is a statement. Rich stories pull consumers through a storyline filled with challenges, opportunities and encounters. Too many brand stories don’t go there – and as a result, they lack dimension, tension and any sense of resolution. A battle won is first a battle fought.

Recently, Shawn posted an excellent piece on how to spot a story. A story he says, has some key components:

  • It often starts with a time or place marker; sometimes a character
  • It involves a series of connected events
  • People do things and talk
  • Something unanticipated happens
  • If it’s a business story, it has a business point

David Geffen once said that “we are a figment of our own imaginations”. I think the role of brand stories is to contribute to that – to place brands in the context of what people most imagine they want in their lives. That’s what makes stories personal and shareable. That’s what motivates people to make another story part of their own story. That story articulates what they want to tell themselves – and it needs to do this from a position of truth.

Three ways then to develop a powerful brand story:

1. Deliver wonder not facts. Build your brand story around people and their dreams, not products and business cases. As Shawn says, “a great brand story helps you feel what happened”.

2. Find ways and places to tell the story in glimpses. Keep people coming back to discover more.

3. Give the story momentum. Build revelations and twists into what occurs over time. Brand stories come alive for people when they feel they can participate in some way. Take your prompt for those twists and turns from how your audience will want to get involved.

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Sandra Pickering
Twitter: opento
on November 30th, 2013 said

Good advice, Mark.
If I may add one more point …
For brands, good stories evoke an archetypal world. i.e. the story should fit in the world of the brand’s archetype. That’s why Nike tells various types of ‘battle’ stories and Coke tells stories about paradise and happiness.

Mark Disomma
Twitter: markdisomma
on November 30th, 2013 said

Sandra – great point. Another one of those ironies of branding – a brand must fit within its archetype (recognition) and yet retain the flexibility in its storytelling not to keep retelling the same tale (excitement). Thanks for the addition. Mark.

    Neil Saunders
    Twitter: neilrobert21
    on May 14th, 2018 said

    To Sandra’s poing and your reply Mark

    Archetypes are the moelcular building blocks of strorytelling.
    They are defined by the way the brand acts and behaves and are not simply bolted on or chosen.
    The brand story may be simply shaped as follows:
    The protangonist (customer) uses the product/brand (archetypal /character sword to slay the cultural dragon (need, want, desire).
    An archetype does not limit the number of stories.
    James Bond is a classic archetypal hero and he never runs out of strorylines.
    It all comes down to the writers imagination.

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