Mastering Storytelling

If there’s a prize for eye-rolling moniker du jour in the communications world, brand storyteller should win hands down.

If there’s a prize for eye-rolling moniker du jour in the communications world, brand storyteller should win hands down.

My beef is not that brand storytellers can’t tell stories—I’m sure many of them are very good at what they do.

What concerns me is whether or not brand narratives can achieve the qualities audiences expect from stories, which are, at their most impactful, inherently personal and human.

To me, the idea of story and storytelling is sacred.

I value the intimacy of story and the connection they secure between parent and child, for example. But stories are sacred also because they are a constant—one of our species’ foundational communications tools. In truly civilized cultures, storytellers are revered as the ultimate archivists and keepers of tradition. A heavy burden, for sure.

Imagine a world without stories.

We’d have no beginning, middle and end. No fiction or fable. No history. No narratives whatsoever. Then what is the point of all this? Suddenly the very arc of our species is flattened. See? As soon as you try to abolish story, you realize how rooted it is in our culture.

You may be familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell. He was an ethnographer, philosopher and teacher. Two of his books in particular have been extremely influential in the realm of storytelling: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and The Power of Myth. Famously, Campbell characterized myth as part of what Jung referred to as our collective unconscious. Campbell maintained that the mythic concepts of hero and villain and quest and redemption have been central to various, disparate world cultures since homo erectus decided to do something with his hands besides walk on them.

Hollywood took notice.

In the 1970s, motion picture director George Lucas tapped Campbell’s thinking to craft the mythological foundation for the Star Wars franchise. A bell went off in the heads of studio execs and story editors. Mythology suddenly made sense. What better way to connect with audiences than to tell them the stories they already knew—to use the structures and characterizations that have fired in their synapses since birth.

Brand stories are rarely stories in the book sense.

So what does any of this have to do with brands?

Rather, they unfold as integrated snippets in websites, social media posts, annual reports, advertising, speeches, videos and other collateral. The risk of this integrated approach is that the thread of the story is lost. As remedy, the brand storyteller turns to the not unintentionally named brand bible, although it is unlikely to contain an actual detailed narrative.

Oh, there’ll often be a paragraph or two—the mandatory elevator pitch (and isn’t that romantic)—but nothing truly substantive. In our shop, we find it increasingly helpful to present a more detailed and compelling backstory on which the short snippets of a brand are based. We turned to myth for guidance. Here’s why, and how.

Most brand stories are pretty mundane.

Let’s face it, they’re clinical. They exist solely to prop up a brand rather than breathe life into it.

Most brand stories lack the conflict and drama we associate with our favourite books and movies. This is unfortunate, as many of the brand narratives we encounter behind the scenes are genuinely intriguing. So what can myth teach us to help ensure a brand story is engaging and memorable? Structure is one thing.

Story structure is threaded through our DNA.

Stories have been built virtually the same way for thousands of years. Our lives are stories. We are born, we struggle to survive, we face conflict and emerge battered (older) but victorious, we die and experience heaven’s glory. This existential link is what makes story such a powerful tool. This is why audiences’ expectations must be met. They know story. They couldn’t tell you what the specific building blocks are, but they will let you know when those blocks are missing.

Today’s audiences are infinitely more sophisticated than they were fifty years ago. They are highly literate in the traditional word sense and the contemporary visual sense. They are comfortable with the shortforms of the digital world and eager to know only who the main character is and what the story is about. For them, structure has been reduced to one word.

Stories are about transformation.

A story is a journey—a journey of change. In every good story, the central characters change by the end, for better or worse, undergoing refinement, growth, improvement. Darth Vader finds salvation in his son. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the light. Severus Snape is redeemed.

Transformation is a fundamental—almost primal—story element. From sea creature to land creature, nomad to city-dweller, child to adult, birth to death. The brand at the beginning of its story must be different than the brand at the end. What trials has it endured? How has it turned adversity to advantage? What benefit can it give you that it couldn’t before? If we don’t get a picture of how a brand was different in the beginning, the audience cannot appreciate the value of its transformation.

In her book, Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway notes that logic and reasoning are the main tools used in commercial writing (such as advertising) to persuade us to feel one way rather than another. “Fiction,” she writes, “tries to reproduce the emotional impact of experience…”

As hard as it is, be real.

This is the trend we see in branding—to draw on this aspect of fiction to, as Burroway puts it, “reproduce the emotional impact of experience.” This is where we get into the tricky realm of humanizing brands, imbuing them with, for example, sensitivity and humour. When it works, it’s gold. After all, the more a brand is portrayed

successfully as having human qualities, the more resonance it will have with target audiences. Yet this anthropomorphization is what makes contemporary brand communication so complex and sophisticated—and brand storytelling so difficult. No wonder brand stories often fall flat.

Breathing life into a brand means it has to be authentic.

Here’s another stumbling block. Authenticity. It’s become the Holy Grail of brand identity. The goal is to be genuine. Hmm. Genuine people are comfortable being themselves. Most brands are not.

Clients don’t necessarily expect their brands to be perfect, but most are unwilling to accept enough of the weight of imperfection to be truly authentic. They are understandably afraid of revealing enough about themselves and their troubles to ensure their stories live up to their potential impact. For all the bluster about wanting and needing to be humanized—to be seen as thinking, feeling, acting entities—most brands simply can’t permit themselves the vulnerability that it takes to be genuine. They collapse under the weight of what it means to be human.

Is it really necessary to anthropomorphize a brand? Necessary? No. Powerful? Yes. After all, most brands represent people—those who own, operate, work for or depend on the brand. The brands with the most audience impact are the ones that are willing to show themselves, warts and all. These are the brands that let us in. The brands that are as fallible as their people—prone to mistakes but quick to apologize and make amends, proud yet able to laugh at themselves, somewhat self-centred but smart enough to cheer for others.

The final mythology takeaway relates to the cast of a brand story.

For a brand story to truly resonate as authentic with audiences, it must present the mythic cast we humans recognize and trust. Traditionally, the brand was the hero—the client, their products and services.[1] This notion of brand heroism is nothing new. For years, marketers have presented hero brands on quests to achieve business objectives: increase sales and shareholder value, boost recruitment, solve world peace, etc. At Stiff, we consider the hero to have completed its quest when it has found within itself and finally upholds the four key qualities of character: intelligence, conviction, empathy and humility.

What is often most intriguing for audiences is witnessing the brand’s struggle to develop and balance those seminal character traits. This is the struggle each of us lives, and the true evidence of humanity in a brand. The struggle for humans is to know when it is appropriate to show conviction or be intelligent, empathetic or humble. Similarly, brands endeavour daily to express their character in response to the world they inhabit. Everyone knows it’s not easy. The effort, and even the failure, gives brands human dimensions.

[1] I believe that the trend is to cast customers as the new heroes, the people who rely on brands for help on the journey to face demons, overcome obstacles, reap the rewards and return home successfully. Today’s brand is often the mentor—the Merlins, Obi-Wan Kenobis and Dumbledores who help guide heroes through thick and thin.

Where does the villain lurk?

Branding agencies place great emphasis on the ability to identify the problems that face brands. Perhaps a brand has outgrown itself. Perhaps it has fallen behind the times. Perhaps it has lost its competitive spark or technological edge. Maybe a competitor is blazing a trail ahead of the client’s brand. In myth, these are the shadows to be overcome. In the stories of our childhood, the shadow (or villain) often takes physical form—many still do, and at Stiff we argue it is helpful in the context of brand stories to imagine the shadow as something more than abstract. Agencies do this already when creating audience personas. It’s no great stretch to put a face to the challenge, if only to give you something to throw darts at.

The concept of the ally has crept on its own into Western culture recently. We call on them to get in the face of bullies and stand up for marginalized groups. In the branding world, we have ambassadors—groups and individuals who believe in a brand and promote it: client employees, partners, stakeholders and end customers. Brands cannot achieve their quests without the support of these cast members. As allies, this brand diplomatic core must come through as more than cheerleaders. They must be willing to defend a brand as well, maybe even make sacrifices for it.

Never to lose your sense of humour.

My personal brand-story cast favourites are the tricksters—Puck in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; Rafiki, the mandrill shaman in Lion King; and the inimitable Yoda from Star Wars.

Think of them as the court jesters, yet their roles go way beyond comic effect. They’re disruptive in a positive way, to keep the hero from getting too full of itself. And isn’t that always a danger with brands.

Who plays the trickster in a brand story? Most often, it falls to the conscience of the brand, which is self-policing to a certain extent. But employees, customers and fans are more than just extras in a brand story. They too have a role in steering the brand to its ultimate quest, a responsibility to speak up when the brand misspeaks, point the way when it missteps. In mythic tales and brand stories alike, the tricksters remind us of the ultimate impermanence of all things.

There’s that change we’ve been talking about.

I suppose my discomfort with branding’s appropriation of story has something to do with my own duplicity. I worry about story integrity and yet I exploit it my own company’s brand work. I’m not totally comfortable with corporatization but depend on it. It could be that I fear brand stories are bound to become entangled in the myths of our times. It may be hard to argue they have not succeeded already.