Posted by: kwbrand | May 12, 2008

Weaving a Whopper of a Brand Story


“Big Fish” is one of my family’s favorite movies. For those of you who haven’t yet seen the movie, stop reading and go rent it; it’s a classic. The bulk of the storyline is comprised of Edward Bloom’s colorfully told, fantastical life experiences in which he—Edward—is generally the hero and always the show-stealer. The premise of the story, however, is the relationship between Edward and his son William. The movie begins by providing a bit context as to why the aging Edward and William have refused to speak to each other for three years. William sums up the problem by saying “I didn’t see any of myself in my father and I don’t think he saw any of himself in me.” But when William receives the call that his father is dying, he returns home to say goodbye and to make sense of his life by retelling the stories he’d heard from his father as a child.

Storytelling is verbal art with a purpose. Its rich tradition spans culture and time and has united generations with a shared sense of identity, purpose and history. In this media-soaked environment, the importance of storytelling endures. Just think of the commercials you love and those that cause you to dive for the remote. The winners invite us into a funny, crazy or compelling storyline. The ones we hate don’t tell stories; they talk, they preach, they feature employees who stand in a line and yell things like: “Happy holidays from our family to yours” in unison, but they fail to tell a story.

And herein is the interesting lesson and challenge for business leaders and brand managers. What is your story? What’s your compelling narrative? Do you have one? Before you start highlighting pricing structures and product features, before you start slashing prices and offering deals, go back to the place when the company founders fought their way up the hill, looked over the competitive landscape and said: “Yep, there needs to be something that fills that need and we’re going to try.”

The common elements of a story are these and I think they bear some interesting food for thought about how to conceive of and tell a brand story:

  • Set the scene: This is the beginning of the story when you introduce the characters, describe the setting and give the audience a taste of the conflict to come.
  • Present the Problem: This is when the audience gets a sense of the issue facing the characters and sees in the problem or in the characters something to which they can relate or admire.
  • Build to Climax and Resolution: This is when the characters face their problem and resolve it.

Of course, master storytellers do more than march through the three stages of story-development. The marketing experts behind big brands like Apple, Harley Davidson, Starbucks and Saturn have skillfully tapped into and expressed the nuanced emotions that best characterize the unique story behind the company, product or service. They entice the audience into the story by appealing to common points of relevance, intriguing human dynamics and emotional elements. And herein is the value of good brand research and strategy.

  • What’s the narrative of your story? How did it begin? What was the drama out of which the need for your product or service arose? In what way are the values that characterized the early days still manifest in the way you operate today?
  • What  are the emotional elements of your brand story? Harley Davidson’s storylines are for people who are fed up with having to kowtow to “the man.” Saturn tells a down-to-earth, homegrown story of and to practical patriotic people. Starbucks tells (or used to tell and is trying to recapture) its handmade, sophisticate story. Apple tells a hip, creative and yet approachable story. What sets you apart? What is the core, differentiating element of your storyline?
  • In what ways does the expression of your brand story reinforce and deepen the allure of the message? Does the visual imagery in marketing communications, the tone and content of the written copy, and the nature of the live customer experience reinforce the key storyline while adding depth and nuance? 

At the end of the movie Big Fish, young William Bloom finds his place in his father’s stories; he begins to see a bit of himself in his father and vice versa. More importantly, he stops being a passive bystander and plays an active role in the story they build together. Herein is the ultimate goal of good brand marketing: the brand story you tell should not just be a story that you tell and to which others listen. The story should suck us in so we stand beside you, slaying your dragon or fighting corruption or empowering the young or whatever it is that sent you irresistibly on your quest in the very beginning.

Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation

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