There’s a growing amount of buzz around the topic of storytelling and its application to branding these days. This happens to be a favorite topic of mine, and one I’ve been asked to blog about for MENG in the coming months.
First things first
Stories are one of the most powerful tools in our communications arsenal. If that comes as a surprise, think back on important values and beliefs you gained while growing up and from the likes of Aesop, The Brothers Grimm, religious parables, and other story sources. If you’re looking for more substantive proof, there is a plethora of research on the potency of stories. You can find references to over 300 studies in a book aptly titled Story Proof, by Kendall Haven, the foremost authority on the subject. Another author, Daniel Pink, who recently wrote The Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future, provides further proof as he explains how storytelling proficiencies are growing in importance as we become less reliant on left-brain analytics being advanced by computer technology.
What can brands learn from stories and story structure?
In a word: plenty.
Simply put, a story consists of a character (or characters) dealing with an obstacle to overcome some goal. This is often referred to as the story’s plot. However, the stories that have the most long-term impact are those that are emotionally charged with some value or belief that resonates with us: persistence pays, love makes the world go ‘round, crime doesn’t pay etc. This is often referred to as the story’s theme or message, and the more unique the theme, the more powerful the story.
Comparatively, brands have plots and themes, as well. A brand’s plot consists of the functional problems (or opportunities) a brand addresses. These are usually expressed as explicit benefits like increased value for the money, more safety, ease of use, etc. However, as with stories, a brand that is solely dependent on its plot is vulnerable to be forgotten or possibly copied by competitors over time. Given the speed of innovation, brand plots have expiration dates. A unique solution to some problem today is very likely to become a “so what” tomorrow.
The brand’s theme, on the other hand, if unique and meaningful, is something that lasts over time. A classic example is Apple and its garnered association with the value of thinking different. Likewise, Nike’s brand is built around the value of athletic performance. Then there’s North Face and it’s belief in the value of exploration, Chipotle and its association with food integrity, and Harley Davidson through its drive to promote individualism. These brands have causes that go well beyond their functional advantages and benefits. There are many others, but unfortunately, these are more the exception than the rule.
Many brands fall short of story theming in the truest sense of the word. Keep in mind that a story theme idea is different from what many refer to as an advertising theme line. In fact, many and arguably most so-called theme lines are promises or benefit claims. They have nothing to do with a universal belief with which audiences can identify or rally around. Many advertising theme lines would be more accurately labeled “plot lines.“
Why is the plot/theme distinction important?
Brands and stories are both vehicles through which relationships are forged. To better understand this concept, consider that the root of the word relationship is “to relate.” “To relate “ simply means to understand, identify, and support someone. It follows that the extent to which we do defines the strength of our “relationship.” This explains why we love story heros and despise villains. Arguably we love heroes not so much for what they do but for the values we associate with their motivations.
Steve Jobs to many is a hero. What he did while alive is remarkable. But why he did what he did is where the real admiration comes in. If you’re familiar with his biography, how he functioned as a manager has been met with a great deal of criticism. It is well documented that he was often abusive, cagey, and belligerent. But his belief system provides a more important story. Despite his eccentricities, he was motivated by the conviction that he was just crazy enough to change the world. And he did. It is hard not to admire and aspire to his indefatigable spirit and the “theme” of his life.
It is the same with brands. We like, want, and even need their functional benefits. But if we are to relate to a brand, what it does or how it performs will never be as important to us as what it represents. We like brands for what they do. But we love them for what they stand for.
The Brand Story Matrix
Thinking in terms of plots and themes, brands can be categorized as one of four different types of stories, as shown by this matrix.
The Balanced Story
When a brand’s plot and a theme are equally important and congruent, the brand story is balanced. It’s “how so?” and it’s “what about it?” work in tandem to provide the consumer with a story that can last. Its ability to stand the test of time is directly related to how well its theme resonates with consumers and its ability to provide benefits that consistently substantiate its core belief. If a brand’s theme is related to a belief in the value of unprecedented customer service, and the proof of that belief is constant, the brand’s story will become fabled.
The News Story
Brands that place a heavier emphasis on their plots with little or no regard to their themes can be categorized as news stories. Their sole reliance on advantages and benefits provide here-today-gone-tomorrow news that becomes affixed to their identities. Burger King’s benefit of having a hamburger prepared to order exemplifies the news story. Building a brand identity around a functional benefit like “Have It Your Way” does very little to build long-term positive associations, as the benefit is being copied by competitors.
Brands that promote their themes at the expense of not providing concrete evidence that their themes have anything to do with their products are labeled “mysteries” in the matrix. Insurance companies and banks, espousing a belief in supporting or protecting the financial futures of their customers, often fall into this category. We see a lot of warm-fuzzy-human-value advertising in these categories but often without any proof that promises made are promises kept.
The Empty Story
Brands that fall into this category are commodities that have no unique benefits and pay no mind to what they stand for. Jones’ Metal Screws presents a non-story that is easily copied and whose sole existence depends largely on price.
As general categories, brands can fall into each quadrant to various extents. For instance, a brand in the legendary quadrant can be highly legendary or somewhat legendary, depending on its plot/theme relationship.
It’s important to note where your brand falls and to do what is necessary to strengthen its appeal with the appropriate plot/theme combination that will resonate with customers and prospects, long term.
Great article, Jim.
When a brands theme is clearly communicated, it naturally attracts followers with similar values and passions. They can become lifelong customers and enthusiasts.
The combination of news appeal (“what”) and theme (“why”) make story compelling and memorable.
You’re right: marketers and business people can learn a lot from master storytellers!