What Hollywood Teaches Business: How to Find Your Brand Story
I am cursed with a career-limiting visual impairment. It’s called eye rolling. Lately, this malady has embarrassed me whenever someone tells me they help brands tell stories. When the phrase “we’re in the brand storytelling business” rolls off their tongue, my eyes roll away to the corner of the room.
Curiously, I do believe that brands tell stories. I just think most people who talk about brand storytelling don’t know what it means. The simple fact is that story is how consumers connect brands to their lives. If your eyes are rolling right now, let me explain.
Our brain is a strikingly effective computing device that works hard to help us understand our world by artificially closing gaps in our knowledge. When information is missing, it makes a best guess. The guesses create linear order that allows us to follow the story. Expert witness Dr. Scott Fraser illustrated this phenomenon in a 2012 TEDxUSC speech when he asked how many people in the audience could remember watching the second World Trade Center tower fall on the television newscasts of 9/11. Nearly everyone raised a hand. Yet, Dr. Fraser pointed out that our memory never happened. People will tell you they can remember where they were standing and what they were doing when that terrifying footage appeared on their televisions moments after the first tower fell. The fact of the matter is that footage of the second tower falling wasn’t broadcast on any television network for nearly 24 hours.
The mental magic that compels us to layer familiar personality traits onto a total stranger or remember things that didn’t happen in our personal history is the same machinery that empowers brands to tell stories. A brand tells a story by providing an archetype of a character we feel we know, and providing experiential cues that push our narrative minds to complete the story.
There are nearly always three stories cued by a brand:
Brand Story 1: The Origin Story
The first story cued by a brand is a pseudo-historical story of the brand itself. This is the story of record—the origin of the brand, it’s recent behavior (i.e., new product introductions or newsworthy events) and its reputation. Mention Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley and tech nerds will play back the origin story of inventors in a garage. They will recount the controversies of the brand’s recent history. The story of record is backward looking, and it’s not always accurate—but it’s a story, and it often resonates with audiences because of our fondness for nostalgia.
Action item: Ask yourself if someone were to tell the history of your brand, what would it be and who are the pivotal characters and plot points? What feelings does it evoke?
Brand Story 2: The Category Story
The second story is the story of the brand’s category. For example, it’s hard to think about Godiva without thinking about chocolate. This strong association with the story of the category has allowed Godiva to extend into adjacent categories such as spirits. Despite its poetic references to the naked lady on the horse, when you talk to consumers about the brand they inevitably construct a story that borrows from the larger narrative genre of chocolate. They speak of indulgence, decadence, sweets, passions and romance. Godiva has positioned itself to tell the story of its competitive field.
But the category story can also be used as a fulcrum. Sometimes, a brand deliberately plays against the conventions of its category. For example, Virgin America rarely tells the conventional story of airline travel. It instead frames its story in the vernacular of club culture. Every cue leads you to recall the story of a sexy disco. You are greeted with house music, mood lighting, premium amenities and sexy flight crews. Each cue sets expectations based on a story in another category—which constructs a differentiated story for the Virgin America brand.
Action item: Ask yourself if your customers engaged in a conversation with others about your brand category, what genre of stories would they tell? What role would your brand play in the narrative, if it appears at all?
Brand Story 3: The Consumer Story
The third story is the story of the consumer. Many psychologists use narrative therapy to re-script a patient’s life. It works because each of us live in what author Neal Gabler refers to as The Life Movie. Our life story is unfolding every minute—some of us have multiple life stories. These include our own history, but they also include our possible self—the person we hope to be. Most of us think of the future when we think of our self-concept, and a majority of us envision a positive outcome. We aspire to be someone and that aspiration is wrapped up in a fictional story that we hope to make very real. To keep that story from fleeting, we seek cues from life that we’re on our way. Not surprisingly, brands are often involved.
When a woman slips into a pair of Christian Louboutin heels, she has cued up a story about herself. The same can be said of the scientist who insists upon using Molecular Probes in his groundbreaking research. The brands are linked to a part of a personal identity—a story about who that person is and what they value. Those brands sometimes cue a story that we might consider to be rather shallow and socially conspicuous, but just as often they embody deep-rooted beliefs and foundational values.
Some years ago, I interviewed a woman who described her loyalty to a fashion brand. She said the clothes made her feel she was getting closer to the person she wants to be, using words like “successful,” “sophisticated” and “smart.” She had connected with the brand when she was in college, but couldn’t afford to buy it often. As she progressed in her career, she made a habit of occasionally splurging to buy clothes from this label. The act of purchasing, wearing and saving up for the next cycle (or paying off the last cycle) were all part of her story. The brand was an extension of her identity, and it was a symbol of the person she aspired to be.
Action item: Ask yourself if you were to psychoanalyze your best customer, how would your brand factor into their life story?
Brand Story 4: The Community Story
There’s a fourth story that’s becoming much more relevant. In 2004, James Twitchell wrote a humorous and insightful piece for the Journal of Consumer Research entitled “An English Teacher Looks at Branding.” Twitchell opens with a story from his college teaching experience, and his horror at how students linked their knowledge of brands to missing lines from nineteenth century poetry. He surmised that “brand stories have become modern sagas,” a collective understanding rooted in a story that “picks up and discards subplots and characters as it is being continually reformed for new audiences.”
Just a few years after this piece was published, social media exploded and the never-ending brand epic found a new channel in which to morph and connect with audiences who, in turn, evolve the narrative yet again. Brand narratives are an epidemic cultural currency—a shorthand that encapsulates and represents attitudes, beliefs and values of communities of people. Twitchell notes that, “The ability to enter these communities depends not on lucky birth, skin color, religious affiliation, or a host of other attributes usually installed at birth but a desire to consume both objects and their fictions.” He closes with a warning and a ray of hope: “I have glossed over the obvious problems of such a culture (clearly, it is wasteful and intellectually shallow for starters), but it may prove to be more fair and democratic that what has come before.”
Action item: Ask yourself if there is a community around your brand? If so, what’s the story that connects that community? How does the community contribute and share the story?
Why It Matters: Show, Don’t Tell
Last year, McCann Worldgroup released “The Truth About Youth,” a fascinating study of more than 7,000 young people around the world. This new generation of consumers value community, justice, and authenticity above all else. They crave “brands of substance” that are wrapped in a meaningful story. Most important, they want their brands to be credible. If they aren’t, 90% of those surveyed said they would make a point of telling friends about “unjust” behavior from a brand. This finding alone takes me back to my eye-rolling disorder and leads me to the most important lesson of brand storytelling.
Brands are natural storytelling devices, and brand managers can bring the brand story to life by serving up cues that tease the story out in the consumer’s head. However, the story must always be one of truth, not fiction. Suggest a story that’s pure fiction in order to mislead consumers, and I guarantee your success will be short-lived.
Some brands may extend their storytelling prowess into motion pictures, television and immersive online experiences. These can be brilliant channels for the brand’s story to take center stage. But even these stories must be based on a foundation of credibility. It has to connect with what the consumer values and what the brand actually stands for. A brand exists to set an expectation. It gains value when experiences with the brand meet or exceed this expectation. The degree to which any brand can become a rock star storyteller will vary, but the story roots of every brand are endowed from the moment of creation and brought to life through actions, not showmanship.
Ultimately, the best way to make that story known is to follow the oldest and best advice that has been doled out to storytellers everywhere for centuries: Show, don’t tell.
Larry Vincent heads The Brand Studio at United Talent Agency (UTA). He is author of “Brand Real: How Smart Companies Live Their Brand Promise to Inspire Fierce Customer Loyalty” and “Legendary Brands.” See his popular presentation titled “On the Subject of Brand Narrative” here.