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Brand Storytelling is Truth Telling

BIG YAM / 3.25.2019

What is Brand Storytelling? The simplest explanation I can give is to ask a simple question: If you need a pair of jeans, would you choose Levi’s, Calvin Klein or some other brand? They are all denim, so why should it matter? The difference is in the story. Each company represents different histories, values and beliefs. This is their truth, and it is manifested in the products they make and the people they engage with.

Why is this important? Chances are, if you see yourself as a rugged, independent individual, you’ll choose a pair of Levi’s. Or, if you believe yourself to be a modern, urban fashionista, you’ll choose a pair from Calvin Klein. The story of those brands needs to resonate with who you are before it becomes a consideration for you. The brand’s truth needs to be the same as your truth. In the same way we have friends who have the same interest, we also find brands that are interested in the same things we are.

What Is a Brand?

This was not always the perception we had of brands. In fact, “brand” is a term that is frequently used but often misunderstood. Its origin comes from more than a century ago when cattle ranchers used branding irons to indicate which animals were theirs. The brand on cattle marked ownership. Over time “brand” became a non-generic name for a product or service. In this sense, its meaning is very similar to a trademark.

With the rise of packaged goods in the 19th century, producers of goods put their mark on a wide array of products – flour, sugar, soda – to indicate their source. A marketplace came to be, along with all the challenges of distinguishing one product from another. In the late 1880s, Coca-Cola® faced a crowded marketplace, copycats and distribution restrictions. It turned to a simple yet innovative way of differentiating themselves by branding their packaging.

Beginning in the later part of the 20th century, marketers began to grasp that there was more to the perception of products and services than just their names – something David Ogilvy described as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” Marketers discovered a perception could be created in a customer’s mind about the qualities and attributes of the product or service. They began to call this perception the “brand.”

Put simply, a “brand” is what a person thinks of when they hear the company or product name. It’s everything people think they know about the offering—fact and/or feeling. A “brand name” exists objectively; people can see it. But a “brand” exists only in the mind.

In the marketplace, our connection with brands is as complex as our relationships with people. The brand is personified, and in that transformation, we have expectations of who they are, how they act, what they say, even what they believe. The brand has a story, just like all of us do, and we choose to engage with them because some part of their brand story is reflective of our own story. But why is the story so important?

The Importance of Storytelling

Storytelling came to be when humans came to be and is both universal and ancient, connecting everyone across cultures and borders. Humans have shared stories for thousands of years, through telling and listening at first; writing and reading later; and then in paintings, poetry, books, songs, photos, movies and social media. And the list continues to grow.

There are multiple reasons why storytelling is essential to the human experience.

Humans are inclined to find a narrative where there is none, defining patterns and order where there is seemingly chaos. Mythology arose so that we may understand the world around us, provide context, predict behavior and give us some control. The cave paintings at Lascaux are theorized to be “sympathetic magic”; by creating these drawings and paintings, the creators placed the animals under a spell and were able to control them.

Stories are social, connecting us to others through a shared experience. This instinct may have its roots from our hunter-gatherer origins, where surviving among our own pack required cooperation and understanding. When stories illustrate intimacies of character, relationships and situations, we model those experiences as rehearsals of what we would do and say in similar scenarios. Many stories moralize, helping us to better understand our values.

In this way, stories can serve as lessons and warnings, or become a point of reference—a template of conduct. Grimm’s Fairy Tales are filled with narratives that would scare any child into doing the right thing, while showing heroes that inspire them to reach greater potential.

Stories are deeply emotional, giving us a glimpse into a character’s thoughts and understanding their feelings, which can be reflective of our own beliefs and perceptions, creating empathy for others. In fact, some studies have shown that reading stories, fiction in particular, can help you to read the emotions of others better.

The need for stories in our culture is rooted in the human desire for meaning. And meaning is a search for truth. Storytelling then, is about discovering truth. From mythology, to fiction, to paintings on a cave wall, they are methods to help us understand ourselves and the world, by connecting our moments with meaning.

Why Does a Business Need Brand Storytelling?

Brands are built to generate revenue by selling products and services. Selling requires people to pay attention to those products and services. So, brands are also in the business of getting attention. But, we live in an age of skepticism. Flashy advertisements, bells and whistles, and big promises are noisy interruptions that are easily disregarded and, in some cases, actively avoided. In a recent study by Edelman (2018 Edelman Trust Barometer), only 52 percent of global respondents trust businesses. The statistic drops to 48 percent in the United States. Seamless product placements, “fake news” and how the internet and social media can exacerbate these problems make it hard to distinguish truth from fiction.

Brand Storytelling is effective because it defines the truth of your brand and communicates it across relevant touchpoints. In essence, it tells an active, evolving, co-created story that invites people in with a sense of shared purpose and values, a common truth. Sharing this truth openly attracts people who believe what you believe. This creates an authentic connection that positions your brand as part of their consideration, entering the subconscious mind where most decisions are made.

Brands that are successful at storytelling become more attractive because storytellers are desirable. From movie stars to best-selling authors, we celebrate the storyteller in our culture, and this is not a modern anomaly. Storytellers are desirable in remote tribes with long traditions like the Agta. In a study to learn of desirable traits for companions, storytellers were valued “twice as much as being a good hunter.”

If you still doubt the power of storytelling for your brand, consider Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, who completed an anthropological experiment creating stories for common objects. They demonstrated effectively that mere trinkets and commodities, purchased at $1.25 a piece, sold for nearly $8,000 total when a story was used to describe each of them.

How Does a Business Approach Brand Storytelling?

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom…” – Lao-Tzu

Humans are intelligent and social beings. We inherently are able to “read” someone through body language, facial expressions, words spoken and many subtler queues that help us gauge who we are engaging with. We’re hardwired to do this. It’s a survival instinct. We need to know if you can be trusted. Why is trust so important?

Because a brand is a promise. What you do as a brand – your purpose – needs to align with what you are saying – your communications. You need to do what you say, or people won’t trust you. But it is not so simple an approach. Many businesses and brand owners excel in their industry but fall short when they tell their story. Paradoxically, the same brand owners, in one-on-one conversations, are very engaging storytellers. Why doesn’t this skill translate into a marketing and communications strategy?

It may be tied to the multiple roles that a brand owner or marketing professional needs to fill. They are at once portfolio managers, brand stewards and the voice of the customer. They need to plow ahead with a digital roadmap and orchestrate cross-functional development while being a megaphone for innovation.

These tactical responsibilities require constant attention, leaving less room for introspective analysis of your business and your brand. It’s hard to answer a deep question like “Who are we?” when you have a question like “Did that digital ad increase sales?” But a deep understanding of the brand self is required before you can reach out to anyone. It is the basis for authentic communication and is the silver bullet to reach your people.

Brand Storytelling connects your tactics with your strategy into a cohesive Brand Story. Think back to our Levi’s example. Their brand, through its communications, products, and a clear understanding of self, evokes images and an understanding of who they are in hearts and minds with the mere mention of its name. This is Brand Storytelling, and it has two steps: 1) Discover your truth, 2) Declare it to your world.

Discover Your Truth

This step is a difficult one for brand owners to take. Most engage with a marketing agency because they want a logo, ad campaign or a broadcast commercial; all tangible deliverables that can be seen and responded to. But all creative deliverables require the foundational elements this step defines. If the foundation is not defined, it becomes apparent when the creative brief is developed. “What’s your single-minded proposition? What makes you different? Why should I choose you? Why would anyone care?” These are tough questions relevant to any marketing touchpoint commissioned, from a new logo to a social media campaign, and are the same hard questions your people, the people you want to reach, are going to be asking.

Still, it’s easier when you have something to look at, and this step builds tangible cornerstones for your Brand Story. One example is the mission statement. Every business should have one. It not only sets the foundation for your communication but behaves as a roadmap for nearly every decision for your brand. Here’s why. A mission statement defines the “who,” “what” and “why” of your company:

  • The “who” is more than your customers. It includes stakeholders, partners, employees, board members and more. It’s your people, your tribe.
  • The “what” is your differentiator, your product. It is your gift to the people.
  • The “why” is your purpose. It’s the reason you get up in the morning; it’s your passion and unique superpower combined.

A well-written mission statement communicates all this, with succinctly crafted words that evoke a deeply emotional response. It sets the stage for your vision statement.

But, you don’t just sit down and start writing a mission statement. Just like how you don’t sit down and start designing logos. A lot of homework has to be completed to give it depth, meaning, distinction, value and authenticity. Defining the “who,” “what” and “why” of your business requires an immersive process that may require audits, interviews and workshops, with the purpose of gathering data points, feedback and anecdotes across your organization, from the executive suite to the loading dock. This research is essential to discovering insights about your organization and your people, and also primes the canvas for creating a brand positioning statement, a customer journey map or an audience mindset statement. All of these are foundational elements that will seed the creative executions to come and deliver an authentic expression of yourself that you can declare to your world.

Declare Your Truth to Your World

“Stories are artifacts, not really made things which we create and can take credit for, but pre-existing objects which we dig up.” – Stephen King

We think Stephen King was onto something, and his epiphany for writing stories can be applied to marketing. Advertising should be experienced serendipitously. Much like a song that is “discovered.” Many things have to be aligned before that song can be found to make a connection with people; the song has to be born from an authentic experience, transformed into music and lyrics, and then distributed in various platforms. And the individual who discovers it needs to have experienced something similar to the story in the song, have an affinity to the type of music it is set in and be in the right frame of mind to be receptive. Usually when they are not looking for it. But once found, it feels like a revelation. That song is the “pre-existing object,” with a story waiting to be “dug up.”

It works the same way for advertising. A strong brand needs to be born from an authentic experience, with defined values and a clear mission and vision that permeate into every aspect of the products and services made and the people that are part of it. Like a good song, a brand story is an inward journey that defines who you are and what you are saying. That brand story needs to be transformed and crafted into an appropriate presentation style that connects emotively through messaging and visuals, and every touchpoint that the brand has to its people. Think of a song about heartbreak and lost love. What would that song sound like from Adele? Or Beyoncé? Or The Beatles? These artists found their following not by chasing an audience, but by finding and expressing their own unique voice. This is Brand Storytelling – also known as truth telling – and it requires truth to the storyteller and truth for the audience.

Truth to the Storyteller

The storyteller must know themselves, their own deepest values, and reveal these through honesty and candor. They are dedicated to a cause larger than themselves, and continuously craft stories that embody their beliefs in the hopes of inspiring those with the same beliefs and convincing more to adopt them as their own. The storyteller defines their truth through purpose and positioning, which act as clear guideposts for marketing communications, and all other aspects of the brand and business.

Truth to the Audience

The storyteller must know their people. When an audience decides to listen, they enter an agreement with the storyteller – that their time won’t be wasted. So, the storyteller has a great responsibility to understand the audience’s deepest desires and needs so they can craft a story that leads them on a satisfying emotional journey that encourages them to join the cause.

The storyteller knows that the pathway to their audience is never a straight line. But rather, it is a network of media platforms, from out of home to email, from websites to events, from word-of-mouth to broadcast commercials. So, the brand story needs to come to life in the creative campaign by taking advantage of each touchpoint and what it can uniquely deliver. A billboard and an email have different experiences, so the messaging has to be adjusted accordingly.

A well-deployed brand story is symbiotic with the audience, and only a deep understanding of them will reveal the insights necessary for the right media strategy. Correct placement, that accounts for the audience’s lifestyle, allows the “discovery” process to take place. The media strategy should have well-defined objectives for each type of media. It is tempting to have the goal for every touchpoint be a sale or a conversion, but that approach often leads to failure. Every touchpoint is used strategically to move the audience further down the field, through awareness first, education second and then to spur action.

Finally, a good storyteller is able to gauge their audience and adjust their story to keep them engaged. Built-in measuring tools during deployment will ultimately help when reporting the effectiveness of each campaign touchpoint.

Conclusion

People may have an allergic reaction to “advertising.” Messages that don’t resonate with them are quickly disregarded. This behavior is non-discriminatory and is applied across all media and platforms. Yet, as quickly as some ads are overlooked, some ads spark connection and spur action. Storytelling is hardwired into the human experience and brand storytelling can be the silver bullet that propels your brand into the hearts and minds of your people. There is an old saying that reads, “Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

Let us help tell your story.
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