Guiding Principles and Considerations for Brand Storytelling

Posted by Mitch Duckler
Brand Storytelling: Guiding Principles & Considerations

Storytelling is an equally compelling form of communication in business as it is in other contexts, but that fact is not always intuitive. We think of business as being driven by rational arguments and evidence, not emotional pleas. Statistics and data rule the day in most business environments. Despite this, it's important to remember that business executives are still human beings — and still subject to the same powerful, transformative properties of storytelling as the rest of us.

Storytelling in the World of Business

Our brand consultants advise marketing leaders to consider the following suggestions to get the most from their stories.

1. Identify Your Purpose

As detailed in chapter 4 on brand positioning, consumers are more interested than ever in the companies behind products. As such, it’s not surprising that an increasing number of companies are choosing to position their brands around their unique purposes—their “why.” Examples include Patagonia, PATOS, Tom’s Shoes, and even B2B players like SAP. In each of these cases, the brand’s purpose is arguably the most meaningful point of difference against the competition. Frequently, that purpose is one of the primary reasons customers purchase from that brand.

Even if a brand is not positioned around a purpose, the “why” can still be an excellent source for a compelling brand story. A tale about why a founder chose to launch a company is one such example, as is one about how a company lives in accordance with its values. According to James Dowd in his presentation The Science of Story, “There’s always a story behind a brand, whether it’s in the product line or the company value system. It’s just waiting to be told.” The more relevant and relatable the purpose, the more powerfully its story can affect the brand.

2. Consider Your Origin

Closely related to purpose is a company’s origin or roots. How it was founded can often provide great fodder for a brand story.

Jim Beam has been a family tradition since 1795. Despite several changes in ownership over multiple generations, its brand still leans heavily on the incredible story it has to tell about its founding and “America’s native spirit.” This applies not only to the Jim Beam brand but to all the company’s spirits. According to former Beam Suntory Chief Marketing Officer, Rebecca Messina, “All of our brands have a great heritage and an incredible story to tell. When I visit our distilleries and speak with the family members of our brands’ founders, I can listen to them for hours. Part of my job is to make those stories relevant and accessible to the consumers who purchase our brands.”

3. Understand Your Audience

A major point of emphasis is that customers — although clearly a vital target audience to address — are typically not the only stakeholders of a brand. As with positioning, it’s important to determine who the most important audiences are for a brand story. And, as with positioning, that usually means more than one audience.

It’s easy to imagine how different audiences will gravitate to different themes, tones of voice, and other communication aspects of a story. It’s another thing to account for different sets of expectations and create a brand story that pleases all of them. Regardless of which direction the story goes, it must remain consistent for audiences of any category to take it seriously.

4. Create Consistent Authenticity

An authentic story helps suspicious consumers relax, which is the first step toward earning their trust. Rather than identifying a successful story that worked for someone else, allow your own voice to shine through. Overpolished, professional speech gets lost in the crowd, but a story that comes from the heart (and remains consistent across channels and audiences) piques curiosity.

5. Bring Outsiders into the Fold

Don’t be afraid to co-create or even outsource the identity of your brand story. Inspiration for great brand stories can come from anywhere, including outside company walls. Customer testimonials and actual customer service examples are great sources for brand stories. These real-life tales also represent one of the best ways brands can avoid coming off as self-serving in their storytelling.

In other words, let audience members define the story on their own, and in the ways that are most personal and relevant to them. The merit of turning to outside sources for inspiration is based on more than just instinct. Headstream’s research backs it up. According to a Headstream study, 57 % of consumers “love” stories based on true events that happened to real people.

6. It’s Not About the Brand (Until It Is)

The final guiding principle is admittedly somewhat paradoxical. However, it is important to keep in mind. Companies clearly need to avoid the temptation to make the brand story all about themselves, but they must also remember the brand story is ultimately meant to sell the brand. Balancing the conflict between entertainment and sales is a delicate balancing act that requires careful management while creating the brand story. Dowd’s presentation reminds brands not to make themselves the heroes of their own stories. The customers are the true heroes — but they couldn’t be without the brands by their side.

What to Do Once the Story Has Been Crafted

Crafting the brand story is only half the battle, especially in today’s media-rich activation environment. Once the story is solidified, pay close attention to its dissemination to achieve maximum impact.

Simply posting story-related assets on a blog is not enough. To get the message to the audience, brand marketers must follow a deliberate strategy that includes social media posts, email campaigns, traditional media placement, and other common marketing strategies. Remember, every channel has a different blend of audiences, so adjust the dissemination strategy with that in mind. Don’t discount paid media during this process. Although consumers distrust the direct word of brands in general, they prefer to control their own story consumption, which means brands should place their stories in convenient locations for audiences to view.

Give special attention to the role video plays in bringing a great brand story to life. Video marketing has gained popularity in recent years, as Headstream’s research verifies. This is unsurprising, given the emotional nature of stories and the dramatically increased potency of audiovisual content. Apple, Dove, and Weight Watchers are just a few brands that have experienced tremendous success while communicating their stories through video.

Treat the delivery of the story with as much care as its creation. By identifying the presence of different target audiences on different channels, then executing a multiplatform approach to disseminate the message, brands can ensure their stories receive the attention they deserve.

Tell a Story for the Ages

Brand stories have gained popularity in recent years, both as a strategic asset and an activation tool. Stories have always been powerful, so the transition of the art of storytelling into the world of business was a natural evolution. First however, marketers need to understand exactly what comprises a brand story and what makes them different from other strategic and creative components of their brand.

The brand story is the narrative designed to evoke positive emotions about the brand within the target audience. These stories are woven into the fiber of the brand’s being, often tracing back to the company’s founding. With such a rich history, a story can enjoy a very long shelf life in terms of relevance and appeal.

In this way, brand stories are quite different from advertisements and campaigns. Though the story might inspire a campaign, a great story will outlive nearly any campaign the company develops. Unlike an advertising campaign, which inevitably runs its course, brand stories have staying power. Brand stories can even outlast brand positioning, which can lose relevance as consumer needs, attitudes, and preferences shift over time.

However, brand stories do share one common characteristic with positioning, advertising, and other aspects of branding: their ultimate objective is to create meaningful differentiation for the brand. As important as it is to be authentic, selfless, and entertaining (without directly selling), the brand story remains a brand strategy tool to help marketers drive a competitive advantage.

Our brand consulting firm believes that a brand's narrative is the cornerstone of its overall branding strategy. Contact us to learn more about our unique approach and how our brand strategy consultants can help you to craft a brand narrative that will resonate with your target audience.

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