What are your brand’s stories? #ApostrophesMatter
Let’s step into the world of brand storytelling a bit. It can be a confusing place, with lots of buzzwords and confusing metaphors. Honestly, it’s a place where many of us content marketers feel a little hamstrung.
You see, when people get together to talk about telling a “brand story” often what we end up discussing is the story and the overall value of the brand itself. It’s hard to avoid and we quickly run into a dead end. But the brand story is different than the brand’s stories (#ApostrophesMatter). Let’s explore.
Enough about me – tell me a story about me
The first reason content marketers struggle with the brand’s stories is that the brand values usually aren’t anything we can use as the foundation of the story. Setting aside the brand symbol/logo, taglines, and core visuals, we are left with brand value statements that the company believes to be true about itself.
For example, look at a Nike brand value statement:
“(Nike) brings inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world and if you have a body, you are an athlete.”
That’s really, really good stuff, and helpful if you’re trying to understand the Nike brand. But for a content marketer looking to create a new story within the brand, as the old English proverb says, “Fine words butter no parsnips.” In short, the storyteller won’t find these words terribly helpful because it is the ideal fulfilled.
Brand values are what the company claims to be the truth about itself and assumes people care (or believe) in those values. But – and this is key – the storyteller needs a point of view that establishes tension. The storyteller needs the pre-value existence to build tension and make the audience care about the values. In the Nike example, the storyteller needs to understand the points of view on the world that make acquiring inspiration and innovation a valuable thing for everyone.
Politics aside, Nike does this well in its Dream Crazy ad, giving the audience a satisfying story.
Nike celebrates the athlete and supports it with a distinct point of view. (Whether you agree or not, the storytellers are supporting their brand with a tension-filled story.) When Nike failed to create a compelling narrative to support a shoe with the Betsy Ross version of the American flag, its effort failed.
In CMI’s storytelling workshops, this is identified as the “core truth” – what it is we believe about the world that we are here to help change by telling people this story.
The wonderful storytelling coach and messaging strategist Tamsen Webster calls this concept the “Red Thread” (which I love). When I asked her about it, she explained that the “red thread is the why behind your why.”
Ultimately, it’s a subtle but important difference. Our brand story says what we want people to believe about us, and our brand’s stories must demonstrate why that belief is a universal truth the audience should believe.
Put simply, Nike wants you to believe that it brings inspiration and innovation to every athlete and that everybody is an athlete. One thing its brand’s stories must then demonstrate, somehow, is that everybody is an athlete and that athletes place an extraordinary value on both inspiration and innovation.
And that brings us to the second challenge of talking about the brand story.
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Content is stories – not the brand
In almost all cases, we have minimal or no control over changing what the overarching brand stands for. Changing the brand story is well above our pay grade or it has been established for decades, or (probably most importantly) it is different in the minds of the consumer than it is on our mission statement page.
Take Facebook. I don’t mean to throw them under the bus because every company struggles with this from time to time. The company is struggling to match how it desires to be seen and how it is seen by most people. This is where content and storytelling can help repair the disconnect. But the stories must, again, come from that distinct point of view that helps the brand reclaim something it may have lost. Facebook could take a page from Nike’s playbook. In the late 1990s when Nike was lambasted for abusive labor practices, it not only changed the way it did business, but it formed The Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit dedicated to telling the story and creating awareness of the issue.
And this is where control comes back to the top. In either case, (and again, most of the time), storytellers are not going to change the brand (but nor do we have challenges the size of Nike or Facebook). Our aim is to support the brand in its mission to either establish, bolster, or repair its current claim about itself.
For example, all the way back in 2012, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Mildenhall, then the vice president of advertising strategy and creative excellence at Coca-Cola. Even someone in his lofty position realized the limitations of changing the brand story when it came to content.
As we talked about creative excellence in content marketing, he said the challenge was that there was no way he could change the brand story. The iconic bottle shape certainly wasn’t going to change, what was contained in the bottle wasn’t going to change, and the logo and other creative elements were never going to change. But as Jonathan told me:
We fully understand that we are still going to have to do promotions, price messaging, shopper bundles, traditional ads, etc. … that isn’t going away. But our (brand’s stories) are the way consumers understand the role and relevance of The Coca-Cola Company. We have to make sure that those ‘immediate stories’ are part of the larger brand story.
This is the important part and why a brand’s stories are our critical job. Our role is to understand how to create many original stories within the brand – that demonstrate our ability to deliver why people should care (the why behind the why) and value the promise of the overarching brand story.
For example, among LEGO’s brand values is that imagination is critical. It says:
(C)uriosity asks why and imagines explanations or possibilities. Playfulness asks what if and imagines how the ordinary becomes extraordinary, fantasy, or fiction. Dreaming it is a first step towards doing it.
When storytellers create a LEGO brand’s stories (such as The LEGO Movie) – they can use that foundation and come up with new core, universal truths (or points of view) that demonstrate the value of the overarching brand.
For example, after reading the above, imagine that The LEGO Movie was a story about a young LEGO hero who gets lost from his parents after letting his imagination run away with him. With the help of friends, he fights his way back and realizes he should be more practical and shouldn’t dream fantastical things. That plot sounds weird doesn’t it? It might be a good story (though it sounds like an episode of Leave It To Beaver to me), but it certainly doesn’t make a good story in the universe of LEGO’s brand stories.
Now that we understand the differences and why #ApostrophesMatter, then how should we look at structuring a brand’s stories?
Pressure test for brand stories
We all know creative ideas come from random places. I love the quote from Nicholas Negroponte who asked, “Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences. Creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions.”
As you’re working with your team to establish, bolster, or repair your overarching brand story, you may come to an idea for a content marketing story from any number of places. The lightning of an idea may strike in the shower or while walking the dog. Or you might be inspired by an idea that comes out of your team’s latest brainstorming stand-up. Or you inherit a story because your company just acquired a brand with a digital magazine.
However that initial idea comes into your possession, know that every great story has four distinct parts:
- A human – Every great story has a human soul at its core, even if that human is a talking LEGO character. Nobody wants to hear the story of enterprise software. They want to hear the story of Jane, the enigmatic hero who finds herself challenged with leading a new digital transformation.
- The goal – Goal(s) are a conscious or subconscious desire of the human in the story. The desire to achieve the goal propels the human hero through the story journey.
When the goal is conscious it may be related to the greater “truth” (as I describe below). The superhero’s conscious goal, for example, might be to defeat the evil monster. But when the goal is subconscious, events transpire in the story that ignite the need for the illuminated truth in the human hero. The superhero also wants to just be normal and find love. The best stories have both conscious and subconscious goals.
- The resistance – Every great story needs a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Occasionally, this comes in the form of a great human villain petting a white cat in a secret lair. Other times the resistance is simply a “mountain” that must be climbed or a giant shark that must be killed. The bigger the resistance and the more relatable to the hero, the better the story.
- The truth – The truth is your argument, what you believe in and the point of view you want the audience to believe or care about. Some might call this the theme or message of the story, but at its core the truth is simply the belief you are trying to inspire in the audience of your story.
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Pressure test in action
Recently, I was privileged to work with an institutional financial services company on a new content mission for its digital magazine. The publication wasn’t working because the articles – coming from everywhere in the business – had no consistent value, theme, or point of view. The team wanted a clearly defined – and differentiating – story for the magazine that it could communicate. And, of course, the story needed to match the new brand the company was rolling out.
We worked through the answers to the seven components – hero, constriction, desire, relationships, resistance, adventures, truth. Then we combined them into the four parts of its new story. As you’ll see, the components are well detailed but not perfect. The team is using this to polish the mission for internal and external audiences.
- The human (combines the hero and the constriction) – The hero is the financial advisor who is under increasing pressure to perform for clients and to prove that expertise and ability to manage money are better than an algorithm. We use the image of the classic, experienced detective being pushed out by the slick, technology-laden hot young graduate.
- The desire (combines the desire and relationships) – These advisors need and want continuing education. They don’t need more noise; they need unique perspective and guidance from expert portfolio managers, trusted colleagues, and genuine thought leaders in the industry to remain relevant to their clients.
- The resistance (combines resistance and adventures) – The advisor’s world is in danger of becoming automated by technology, and algorithms and artificial intelligence. It’s an atmosphere that increasingly devalues the human investor and makes trading more like gambling.
- The truth. Human investing is the only investing. It is a higher calling. New technology should be used, but it should be powered by wisdom. And only human advisors have this ability.
Can’t you see better stories, better posts, and, overall, a differentiated value coming from that framework?
To be clear, this framework is not a template. I see this in the way the author of The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler, describes Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. As he writes, the hero’s journey “is not an invention, but an observation … a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world.”
In other words, not every great story has an earth-shattering, differentiating answer to every question. But the better the answers, the better chance you have something truly worth exploring. The framework can be a tool of expedience, getting to a better story more quickly. Or, over a longer time, the framework might help develop a bigger and better brand story where none existed.
Overall, I hope this framework becomes another tool in your skill box, helping you to become an amazing brand storyteller in a world that will increasingly value that talent.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute