As more and more brands are stepping into the digital environment, the competition to capture and retain audiences’ attention is getting bigger and bolder. In trying to win the hearts, minds, and wallets of consumers worldwide, brands are adding layer upon layer of marketing techniques and brand storytelling is the shiny, new toy.
For the consumer, this means being bombarded with messages telling them this brand wants to breed innovation, the other is all about technical excellence, or that one will deliver creative value. I’m not saying they’re not noble goals. I am, however, saying that unless there’s an actual story behind those goals that’s all they’ll ever be – goals.
Here’s the catch. Most companies exist because their founders wanted financial independence, they were good at something and found they could make money off it, wanted to be their own bosses and the list could go on ’till Christmas. Kind of a boring story, isn’t it? To me, the secret of a well-told brand story lies in the quill, pen or keyboard of the storyteller and here’s why.
Once upon a time
While there are idealists in this world, a group I unreservedly admit to being part of, most companies aren’t set up for a higher purpose. There’s nothing wrong with that but saying “Flora’s Flowers exists because I inherited the business from my nana” won’t make for a page turner anytime soon.
So the story isn’t really the story, is it? The story is telling the story in a way that will mean something to people who’ve never met you before. It’s not about two kids being abandoned in a forest and running into a cannibalistic old lady living in this diabetes-inducing hut in the middle of nowhere. It’s about a brother and sister, whose famine-stricken parents selfishly abandon them in a forest where they are lured and almost eaten by an old witch. The children wittily managed to con the witch and return to their father with whom they lived happily ever after.
The Grimms’ Fairytales are a great example of how stories change depending on the storyteller. While you’re likely familiar with the modern versions, filled with happy endings and motivational messages, the original collection published in 1812 leaned way more towards the horror genre. Over the years, the stories got sanitised and, from one storyteller to the next and the next, we ended up with new versions.
Much like these fairytales, brand stories are about finding the story you want to tell and giving it the context you need to achieve your goals. `Flora’s Flowers` could then become a family tradition that began with granny Flora’s passion to make the world more colourful. The story is still real but it’s been given a context the audience can relate to. Even more than that, by calling it a family tradition rather than a business, it adds another layer to its personality, making it much easier and more effective to define and build the brand.
Tales and Tall Tales
Like we’ve seen in the case of Flora’s Flowers, coming up with a brand story can just be a matter of perspective. In other cases, a brand might not have a real tale to tell. That’s not so say there is no value in its products or services, just that its reason for being doesn’t make for a very good story.
Coming up with a compelling brand story, however, doesn’t have to become a work of fiction. By using a storytelling technique called Reverse chronology, you can start by defining what your brand has become. Following that thread back into your company’s history will reveal what assets helped you get to where you are, what you kept going, and Voila! you have a story.
Storytelling is a very powerful tool, giving your entire business a voice, but for it to be effective, it has to be geared towards building a relationship with your audience and relationships are built on trust. The more fictional your tale, the less you’ll be able to sustain it in the future, making it less and less believable. Ultimately, no matter how well-polished, a tall tale packaged as a brand story will end up driving your audience away.
When trying to figure out the author of a good brand story, a brand specialist, creative marketer or copywriter, and even an inspired founder are a good bet. When it comes to great brand stories, it’ll be very hard to figure out where the wildfire began. That’s because a great story starts with someone’s idea, it then brings people together, making them a part of the story, and finally inspires them to pass the story on to others.
A great brand story is told and retold so many times, that it doesn’t even matter who came up with it, as long as people resonate with and contribute to it. In this case, the brand will have an added function – keeping the story consistent – but that’s a topic for a different day.
For smaller businesses, coming up with a compelling story almost always falls to someone in the marketing team. To build something sustainable, however, the authors can’t be people who might come and go within the organisation. The story has to be penned by a constant in the organisation, generally the founders, who won’t just act as the keepers the story but will help develop it in the future. Of course, they can’t do it all by themselves but they do have to understand it, believe in it, live it and inspire everyone across the business to do the same.
In other words, a great tale starts from your business founders/ owners, is shaped and contextualised by creative thinkers within the business and, finally, adopted, told and retold by everyone in it; pretty much turning your entire staff into storytellers.
Keep writing chapters
In order for it to be effective, your brand story has to be aligned with your business goals; otherwise all you’ve got is a really nice story. While the two shouldn’t overlap, your story should be a facilitator in helping you achieve your business’ goals. Let’s go back to our earlier example. The owner of Flora’s Flowers wants to earn a living by making the most of an inherited flower shop. To do this, he/she thinks about what that would mean for her customers, how it could positively impact their lives and comes up with the concept of making the world more colourful through beautiful flowers.
A good story, grows with time. Similarly, your brand story should evolve at the same pace your business and its audience evolve. In our example, because the story is well-grounded in the business’ reality and speaks to the consumers on a more emotional level, the shop owner can easily develop the story, keeping the brand fresh and engaging even more potential customers.
In time, the owner of Flora’s Flowers could realise that there’s a big demand for potted plants and remember that her gran used to sometimes decorate her flower pots with unique, colourful patterns. The business can then expand to start selling colourful flowers in hand-painted flowerpots, following grandma Flora’s technique, responding to consumer demand while writing an exciting new chapter in their brand story.
The Bottom Line
From its once upon a time, through its plot and character development to its new chapters, the storyteller is the one who shapes all of these brand story essentials. They are the ones who find the exciting plot people will relate to, tell the story, define the canvas and help the tale spread. But they are not the ones who wrote the story in the first place and, whoever the wordsmiths, they cannot and never should work independently from the author.