Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Storytelling and the Brand Narrative

The Backstory

Even my father says so, at heart, I am a storyteller – and there are stories everywhere. Being “creative” on demand and rolling things in narrative glitter are my bread and butter. Giving an organization a clear message and a clear voice in which to tell it is the crux of my nine-to-five. Making that message resonate, giving it life, making it visual, making it stick, stimulating a conversation, and giving people a reason to actually give a damn, is a disciple in itself. 


Please excuse the somewhat flavorless tone of the following post. This was initially written as part of my 2013 visiting lecturer series at Nottingham Trent University, but I’m trying to post something relevant at least monthly, and alas, October has run away with me. 


Flippancy and professional irreverence will be resumed as soon as possible.


Crafting Connection and Distinction


The Power of a Story in Branding 


Ideas are cheap, nay free, and products are plentiful. And boy, the marketplace is crowded. What makes you stand out?

A "brand narrative" is a consistent and compelling story that encapsulates a brand's values, mission, and unique identity, designed to provoke an emotional connection with its audience. A compelling brand narrative isn’t just a luxury; it's a necessity. If you don’t have it, you don’t have a connection, so you have no emotional value to your audience.


The art of brand storytelling - yes, I did say art - goes that step beyond just advertising; it creates an emotional bridge between us (the brand) and our audience (probably a buyer or prospect), fostering a deeper, more meaningful connection. It’s not esoteric, it’s just basic psychology blended with creative journalism. It’s about wearing our brand values and product journey on our sleeves and cutting through the hyperbole and marketing speak.


Emotional Engagement Through Storytelling and Design 


Emotional engagement is the cornerstone of effective storytelling, and there is an interplay between storytelling and design. Admittedly, this is the natural angle I come from because my roots are in graphic design, English literature, messaging, filmmaking, scriptwriting, etc., and technology and theory are moving forward all the time. It is, however, in my somewhat jaded experience, true.


A well-crafted story, combined with visually striking graphics, be they AR animations or magazine copy layout, can evoke a range of emotions, from trust and comfort (John Lewis) to apprehension and anxiety (the pro-Brexit campaign) and from excitement and aspiration (Nike’s "Just Do It") to simple FOMO (Apple tapping into their existing consumers' desire not to be left behind in the latest advances in shiny tech). 


Obligatory 1984 Apple's Macintosh Commercial playing in the background. Not because it’s related or illustrates a specific point. Just because it’s awesome.


Brands like Apple have mastered this blend, using minimalistic design and poignant narratives to create a loyal and passionate customer base of like-minded souls. Apple's narratives often focus on innovation, creativity, and the human element in technology, resonating deeply with their tech-savvy audience. 


Crafting a Compelling Brand Narrative 


I don’t have the great British novel in me. I get my dopamine fix in other ways, and with more regularity. I imagine, however, that creating a compelling brand narrative is akin to a plotting a captivating book. 


It should have a clear theme, consistent characters (your brand's voice), and a plot that unfolds over time. The narrative should be authentic, reflecting the brand's values and mission. 


NB: Brand values and a clear mission statement are crucial as they define a company's identity, guide its business practices, and inform its relationship with customers. They serve as a compass for decision-making and communication, helping to build trust and loyalty by ensuring consistency and authenticity in all aspects of the brand's operations and messaging. There is no brand narrative without them.


Anyway, par exemple, the fashion brand Patagonia's commitment to environmental sustainability isn’t just a marketing strategy. It’s a core narrative and brand equity that influences all its business decisions and marketing efforts. It’s their “shtick,” their “hook,” and their base identity. In many ways, it is its audience, and it supports the same ideals and standards. 

It attracts that audience by saying, “We are who we are, and we’re passionate about it. We take a stand. We’re on your side, our side, and the planet’s side.” 

Many folks say Patagonia “goes against the normal,” but customers in most sectors are bored of normal. Normal doesn’t stand out. Normal doesn’t sell. Who wants to wear normal?


Standing Out with Stories 


Our increasingly skeptical consumers are bombarded with obvious and targeted advertisements. A unique and creative story can cut through the skepticism (if it’s told with sincerity and consistency) and legitimately raise a brand above the heard. Customers are savvy and can see when they’re being sold to, but an honest and compelling brand narrative with real motivations and an obvious human behind the curtain adds credibility, passion, purpose, and trust.


Good stories make good brands stand out. Take, for example, the then somewhat revolutionary storytelling approach of Dove with their 'Real Beauty' campaign. By focusing on real stories of diverse beauty, with real people at the fore, Dove instantly distinguished itself in a market saturated with unrealistic beauty standards and created conversation around the topic of its detrimental effects. We know that the use of impractical and unrealistic ideals of physical perfection in advertising fosters negative body image, low self-esteem, and mental health issues among consumers. It perpetuates narrow and unattainable ideals, contributing to a culture of exclusivity and discrimination. Dove used their campaign to make a stand and to stand out, sparking conversations and creating a strong emotional response. It broke the mold in a good way, immediately promoting the likes of online retailers to use common and plus-sized models, which we now think of as the norm.


The Role of Brand Voice and Personality 


This will be in the quiz, so write this down as I say it: “A brand's voice and personality are essential elements of storytelling.” 


This voice should be consistent across all platforms, whether it's the witty and irreverent tone of Old Spice (wow, you can tell when this was written) or the inspirational and aspirational tone of Under Armour, Tesla, Airbnb, L'OrĂ©al, or Peloton. 


The brand voice is a critical tool in making any narrative relatable and memorable. 


Discovering Brand Stories 


Finding stories within a brand can seem daunting, and some of the examples I’m using above are, in reality, obvious extremes, but stories often lie in simple places: the origins of the company, customer experiences, the journey, employee stories, stakeholder passions, or the creation of a product. 


For instance, the story of how the microsegmentation and zero-day protection provider, TrueFort, was founded: “It all started with a breach” at a major banking organization, which revealed a problem, so two clever guys in the trenches fixed that problem then took their solution to market - is a narrative that speaks of innovation and industry-focused solutions. It’s honest, simple, true, and says, “We’re real people on the side of CISOs and the security team.”


I’ve talked about finding inspiration for stories previously in my Staying Creative as a Content Marketer post, which might have some nuggets worth mining, and here are some further notes on finding your brand story.


Leveraging Thought Leadership Content 


Thought leadership is a simple and recognized way to build a brand narrative. It positions a brand as an expert in its field, adding depth to its story. 


A tech company might share insights about emerging technologies, or an interior design firm might discuss future home trends. Essentially, a small brand can have a big voice and become a source for opinion and news on their specialist topic. This content, while informative and of value to the customer, also tells a story of expertise and foresight. Rocket science it ain’t.


Using personality is useful for companies of all sizes, and personality can be used for used to leverage the distribution of the message. 

Consider a project I did with renowned opticians Vision Express: Then CEO, Jonathan Lawson, connected with all 500+ employees on LinkedIn. That was a lot of clicking, trust me. He then began to use the platform to share Vision Express posts, silently promoting brand content. He blogged on LinkedIn, ghost-written by me, to showcase new technology, his leadership style (keeping it human/personal), and company achievements. He shared company PR and HR ideals from a personal perspective. His connection to the organization, and a transparent and accessible (managed) voice from behind the curtain, was the story.

While I was working with Vision Express, I went to a store opening and had one of their free eye tests with their new visual fields testing equipment, and the ophthalmologist found I had early-stage glaucoma. Catching this at the beginning, with their new in-store technology, probably saved my vision, and treatment stopped the headaches I’d been ignoring for months. Stories are everywhere. I shamelessly jumped on this, crafted a raft of related video and written content, and I was happy to be the poster boy for that month. “Go and get a free eye test.” After all, I kinda owed 'em one.


Creating Written and Visual Brand Journalism 


Brand journalism combines storytelling with journalistic principles. It's about creating content that's informative, engaging, and newsworthy. The key is to focus on stories that interest your audience, not just your brand. 


Red Bull is a prime example, with its magazine and media company focusing on extreme (non-combative) sports and lifestyle, which aligns with the brand's “adventurous spirit.” 


Cohesive Storytelling 


The art of storytelling in branding is a multifaceted endeavor. It's about striking the right balance between emotional engagement and informational content. A successful brand narrative should be consistent, authentic, and above all, compelling. 


Consumers are more discerning and better informed, and a well-told brand story is what will ultimately resonate and endure.

Here endeth the lesson.