Time to show your brand character
Why read this? : We look at the meaning of character in telling your brand’s story. Learn why choices made under pressure define your true character.
Why read this? : We share how brands can use the power of stories and brand storytelling to better engage their audiences. Learn why stories are such a powerful communication tool. Learn what elements and structure underpin great storytelling. And learn how storytelling connects to brand and marketing objectives. Read this for ideas on how to get the most out of brand storytelling.
How this guide raises your game :-
Let us tell you a story.
This is one of the best opening lines you can use in your communications. Because everyone likes a good story.
Stories communicate ideas, concepts and values in a way that’s understandable, memorable and shareable. Storytelling has been around as long as humans have.
Our ancient ancestors used stories to communicate. Think about cave drawings and hieroglyphs, for example. These were visual stories, passed from one tribe to the next, from one generation to the next.
We tell and hear new stories every day. We use stories to entertain and educate. Stories preserve cultures and instil moral values.
And because stories have such a long history and are still such an ingrained part of everyday life, there’s lots of techniques and tips you can learn to tell better stories.
That’s good news when you want to tell better stories with your brand.
Engaging your target audience is usually part of your brand activation and communication goals. Brand storytelling helps you do that. It can help make your brand communications more relevant, more engaging and more inspiring. That makes customers happier and leads to more sales.
Stories are a way to organise ideas, concepts and information and take the audience on a narrative journey. The structure, techniques and words you use to tell your story create an experience for the audience which makes them think, feel or do something different. The experience of hearing a great story is memorable and shareable.
Stories are an easy way for us to pass on complex amounts of information. And your marketing goal is often to pass on complex information such as why customers should believe in and buy your brand.
Stories help you do this.
Psychological studies have shown stories light up the sensory cortex in our brain. This is the part of the brain which processes sensations. So, in effect stories help us ‘sense’ the world around us.
Our brains are wired to recognise and listen out for stories as a way for us to learn, remember and pass on information.
Some studies suggest stories may be up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone. But obviously, this is a broad average assumption and doesn’t apply in every case.
It’s not the story necessarily, but the way you tell it that makes an impact. And that’s because stories surround all of us every day.
We see and hear stories in the movies, TV shows and books we enjoy. We hear them in conversations with family, friends and work colleagues, and we teach our children with them. They’re a way for us to connect and build relationships with those around us.
And so, for brands, brand storytelling does those same things with your customers. They’re a way to converse, to teach and connect, and build relationships with those customers Brand storytelling brings to life your brand identity, creates memorable and relevant communications which your target audience connects with.
Storytelling in wider life can have many purposes.
Sometimes the story is meant to entertain. Sometimes it’s meant to educate. You can tell stories to preserve cultures, or instil moral values.
Most brand storytelling activity focusses on entertainment and education. It’s used to target customers with relevant and engaging content which makes them think better of your brand.
But before we get into how that works, it’s worth picking up on the culture and values role of stories too.
As per our creative thinking guide, business culture is a broad topic which deals with how things get done in a business. Especially how your business makes decisions.
Culture is what drives the thoughts, feelings and actions of the business. It combines the people in the business, its leadership and the environment in which it operates.
This culture defines the values which sit behind the brand identity. These values are core principles which define what the company stands for. What it believes in.
But values are only words on a page until you bring them to life. Until you give them context and meaning. Brand storytelling is a great way to do this. You can use brand storytelling to bring your values to life. It makes your values easier to understand and relate to.
Let’s say one of your brand values is to be environmentally friendly, for example. Rather than just say you are, tell a story which shows how you live that value. What do you do to back this value up? Use brand storytelling to show the actions you go though to substantiate this claim.
Or let’s say, one of your brand values to to be innovative and pioneering. Tell a story that brings this to life. Use brand storytelling to show people how you’re innovative and pioneering.
This brand storytelling helps bring to life the positioning you build as you go through the segmentation, targeting and positioning process.
In particular, it helps clarify and articulate your benefit, your reason why and your reason to believe. You can use brand storytelling to convey the culture and values which underpin your brand identity.
Only your brand can tell those stories. It’s a key way you can stand out and be different. It gives your audience a reason to listen to you.
And when audiences listen to your stories, that’s great for your brand. It drives brand engagement, brand choice and long-term relationships with the brand.
Most brand stories are either entertaining, educational or both. Entertaining stories help to take the audience on a journey. They take the audience to new places in their mind.
Entertaining stories play heavily on emotions and feelings. They aim to make people laugh or cry. They aim to make people feel frightened or angry.
These types of feelings work on the limbic system in the brain. This part of the brain assesses and responds to emotional stimuli.
When you use brand storytelling to entertain and connect with feelings and emotions, this creates much deeper and stronger connections with the target audience.
As we’ll show, it’s a commonly used advertising technique to create a more impactful experience for the target audience.
Entertaining stories are often easy to remember and pass on. They reinforce a brand’s values and personality.
For example, read The HP Way by David Packard* about the origins of Hewlett Packard.
He tells a great story about how competitors in the early days of the business would lock up all their tools at the end of the day. They feared employees would be tempted to steal the tools.
But much of the culture at Hewlett Packard was built around the concept of trust in their employees. Packard shares the story of how they went the opposite way. No locked cupboards. Employees could do whatever they wanted with the tools … because they trusted them.
This is a very simple story which is much better told in the book. But it’s a neat way of highlighting a complex issue (trust) with an easy to share story. You can visualise the ‘no locked cupboards’ and compare them to places you know where the cupboards are always locked. You read the story and associate a culture of trust with Hewlett Packard.
If your story exists to educate, you can also use stories to bring to life this message.
You use a story to educate consumers about a problem or an issue. And give them easy ways to solve it.
Companies that have a clear purpose often use stories to bring their purpose to life.
By using the privilege of access to safe sanitation in developed countries and setting up a system where buying toiler paper from them helps improve toilet facilities in underdeveloped countries, they tell a great story.
It identifies a problem and makes it clear what action you can take to help with the problem.
If you just tell someone a fact, they might remember that fact, or not. But if you tell someone a story that includes that fact, they are more likely to remember it. The story brings the fact to life and makes it more vivid and memorable.
Imagine we had to teach you musical scales for example. Not the most riveting of subjects.
But include those musical scales in a story about a family’s daring escape from Nazis during WW2. And make them singing the scales part of the story. Then suddenly it’s much easier to remember.
We all know “doe a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun” from that story, right? We’ll bet there’s a lot more people know those scales because of the Sound of Music, than ever formally learned them in a music lesson.
Whatever the purpose of your story is, there’s no doubt that showing it through brand storytelling makes it more interesting. Brand storytelling makes it easier to understand and more memorable to the target audience.
So, now that we know why stories and brand storytelling matter, how do you actually put a story together? What are the key elements you find in stories?
We’ll cover the basic elements in this guide. The hero / heroine lead character. Then, the problem or challenge they face. We’ll cover the role of the guide in the story, and what that means for you and your brand. Then, we’ll cover the plan and call to action which have to be part of the story, as well as the failures and successes which drive the story to the goal.
Every story needs a hero (or heroine) character.
A story takes the audience on a journey and the hero / heroine is the vehicle which carries the audience along that journey. It’s the experiences, thoughts and actions of the lead character which help the audience feel they’re sharing the journey.
You want the audience to identify and connect with the hero / heroine. Through the thoughts, feelings and actions of the hero / heroine, the audience needs to feel they share a similar view of the world and how it works. Like they have a similar character.
With brand storytelling, it’s even more important the customer identifies with the hero / heroine. That they could be the hero / heroine of that brand’s story.
As individuals, we interpret experiences through our own unique and individual view of the world. We are the heroes and heroines of our our story. Each of us have a “self”-centred view of the world, that’s shaped by our current situation and our past experiences.
If your brand story is about how you overcame a problem or challenge, then that problem or challenge needs to be something the target audience understand and relates to. They need to think “oh, I need to fix that, too”. If they don’t find the problem you solve relevant (to their life), your brand story won’t interest them.
If you have developed a customer experience persona as part of your customer experience development work, this helps a lot to create the hero / heroine character.
The customer persona works like a character description of your ideal target customer.
You should use this to tell your story from the point of view of that idealised customer. The words this character uses and the problems they face.
Use this to show the way they make decisions.
Make the connection between the audience and the hero / heroine.
That character then, needs to face a problem or challenge. If everything is good with the character, there’s no real story. But when the character (or customer) faces a problem that the audience recognises, there’s a story. Because there’s the instant curiosity to find out how the problem gets solved.
From a brand storytelling point of view, this should relate to the customer need which drives your positioning. Your benefit, reason why and reason to believe become key parts of the solution to the problem the audience faces. So, it’s important to establish the problem they face right away.
It’s for this reason, for example, that you see so many advertising headlines that start with a question.
A question is a great way to grab attention and identity a problem quickly.
Need help doing your taxes? Losing weight? Choosing a new phone?
It doesn’t have to be dramatic. But it does have to be relevant. These questions are the problem that starts the story for the audience. They are the questions that the audience want to know the answer to.
To answer these questions and problems, you need another character to help the hero / heroine start to move in the right direction. The hero / heroine doesn’t just do it themselves. They need help.
If they can solve the problem without help, then it’s probably not too much of a problem. And the help usually comes in the form of some sort of guide. Someone who has experience, knowledge and skills that can help them.
These “guide” figures are everywhere in stories when you start to look.
Think Yoda and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga. Yoda guides Luke to solve his problems with The Force.
Think Gandalf and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings. Gandalf guides Frodo to return the ring and destroy it.
Or think about Back to the Future. Isn’t Doc Brown the guide for Marty McFly?
In many stories, there’s a more experienced mentor figure who educates the hero / heroine. They provide the resources needed to start to solve the problem. And they point the hero / heroine with the problem in the direction of their goal.
In brand storytelling, this is where you want the brand identity to come in. The brand is there to act as a guide for the hero / heroine (the customer). You are there to offer advice, wisdom and support. Your brand points them in the direction of their goal, and helps them define their plan.
And so, that advice, wisdom and support, and the direction towards their goal becomes the plan. In stories, this might be a journey to a destination. Or a series of meetings with other characters and situations.
In brand storytelling, it essentially becomes the series of actions that you want the target audience to take. To solve their problem, they just need to buy this product, or book that appointment, or visit that website. The story makes it clear what they need to do to overcome the challenge or problem.
Stories then also need a call to action, a trigger that sets the chain of events into motion. This might be the search for the hidden treasure. Or the rescue of the kidnapped prince or princess. But something needs to happen in the story, so that the hero / heroine begins the process (the story) to overcome the challenge.
The final part of the story is then the build towards and arrival at resolution. What happens when the story is done? And what happens along the way to get there?
It’s important that there’s some sort of struggle. Problems that are easily solved are not that interesting or compelling in a story. The story should make clear what the successful resolution of the problem looks like. And what the consequences of failure are.
Brands can use the resolution and the key scenes in the story to help paint a picture of what they can do to make the life of the audience better. They can use brand storytelling to show what life will be like when the consumer interacts with the brand. And they can use brand storytelling to show the consequences if the consumer fails to interact with the brand.
You can see some of these elements on the outer circle of the brand wheel that we cover in our guide to brand identity.
Each of these elements build on each other. They tell a short story about how the interaction with the brand makes the consumer feel. And consequently, how that changes or impacts the perception of the target consumer.
So, those are the basic elements you would expect to find in a story.
The hero / heroine encounters a problem. A guide helps them with a plan and a call to action. And the scenes of success and failure play out until the resolution of the problem.
For further reading, we recommend The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr and Build a Storybrand by Donald Miller. Both these books have more ideas and inspiration on the key elements of storytelling.
It’s also worth checking out the marketingisntabout site which a has comic-style infographic that shows what a good brand story can do for a business. It includes definitions of what a good story is and the formula for a good story, which is presented in a fun and eye-catching way.
So, when you know what the key elements of the story need to be, the next step is to organise them into an order.
This is the story structure, the sequence of events and details that cover the journey of the story.
Most stories will follow a common structure.
At the most simple level, they’ll have a beginning, a middle and an end.
There are a number of jobs to be done at each of these stages to establish the story arc. This is the flow or progress the story makes over its course. It’s important the story “moves” as that keeps readers and listeners interested.
In the beginning, we meet the hero / heroine. We find out who they are, and learn the problem they need to solve. This beginning of the story helps us to understand the context and environment of the story.
The problem needs to create a tension or struggle for the characters.
From a brand storytelling point of view, this is where you hook the audience in to read more. You want to make the character and the problem feel relevant to the audience. They need to want to know the answer to the problem. So, think about what’s likely to bring the problem to life for the target audience.
Let’s imagine you’re a plumbing business, for example. Far more impactful to start with “drip, drip, drip, doesn’t that leaky tap REALLY get on your nerves after a while?” than “hey, we’re a plumbing business”. The leaky tap is the problem you can solve.
Or let’s imagine, you run a pizza restaurant. Far more impactful to start with “the widest range of tasty pizzas delivered within 45 minutes” than “hey, we’re a pizza business”. Not having the pizza you want and having to wait for it are the problem you can solve.
The middle of the story is where you see “the plan” come to life. You introduce the guide and the guide helps the hero / heroine build the plan.
But, in real life, plans never go exactly as well you’d like. So there are always ups and downs in the middle to the story. The middle of the story shows the struggle to overcome the initial challenge as it builds towards a climax.
You want to highlight the key steps the hero / heroine takes to head towards their goal. This is done through a series of scenes that move the story and action forward. These take the audience step by step towards the end.
When brand storytelling, there’s a temptation to only show the “good bits”. And to remove or omit any “bad bits”. Those times when things didn’t go right, or didn’t go as planned.
But this would be a mistake.
By showing your brand as less than perfect, you make your brand more relatable and human. No-one is perfect. In fact, perfect makes most people suspicious. If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.
When you show something going wrong, but also how you dealt with it, it’s a more engaging experience for the audience.
Every story then has an end. A climax. A resolution.
Whatever happened has changed what the world was like at the start of the story. There’s a “new normal”. The hero / heroine defeated the evil empire. The police caught the diamond robbers. Whatever it was.
In brand storytelling, this end or climax is really to highlight what will happen for the target audience if they follow your brand as the “guide”. Paint a picture of what “success” looks like.
Is it more customers? Or more engaged customers? Even more loyal customers?
Is it less worry about the business? Or more headlines and positive coverage?
Whatever it is your business offers, use the climax in brand storytelling to demonstrate that end goal. Show what it means for the target audience to follow you as the guide.
Now you’ve identified the 3 key sections of the story, you next have to work out how they join together and how the story flows.
One well-known example to do this, is the story spine the movie company Pixar use. The stories that Pixar create have been phenomenally successful.
Whether you define success as stimulating the imaginative minds of future generations, or simply putting billions of dollars in the bank.
Their story always starts with “once upon a time, there was …” where we get to meet the lead character – the hero or heroine.
Then, with 2 sentences which start “Every day, …” and “one day, …”, we find out about the problem or challenge that will drive the story. So, the fish that needs rescuing. Or, the toys that got accidentally lost. Or even, the dark force that threatens the future of the superhero family.
We then basically see “the plan” and the “call to action” play out though the middle of the story as the characters react to the problem with actions. “Because of that, …” this thing happened. And then “because of that, …” the next thing happened. The fish / toys / superhero family went on a quest to fix the problem at hand.
Each story then drives towards a resolution or climax, that you can sum up with “And finally, …” where the struggles are resolved. The lost fish or lost toys are recovered. The hero family triumphs over evil forces.
Now, in brand storytelling, the “elements” might not be so fanciful as fish, toys or superheroes.
But the underlying structure and premise still works.
Your lead character (your target audience) has to recognise the problem. And they have to be interested enough in you, as the guide to follow you through the journey to find the solution or resolution of the story.
Though every story will be different, many researchers into storytelling have identified common patterns that shape different types of stories. We review one of the most well-known, Christopher Booker’s the 7 Basic Plots in our separate article on story types. That includes examples like overcoming the monster and rags to riches as well as more well-known story types like comedy and tragedy.
Brands and business that want to connect with consumers use brand storytelling to help articulate what the brand stands for, and how it helps its target audience. It engages audiences so you can use it to help build your brand identity.
People don’t just buy what you do, they buy why you do it. And brand storytelling brings to life why you do what you do.
These stories persuade and influence audiences that it’s worth their time to engage with you and your brand. The audience connects with the ideas and concepts in the story. Stories help brands stand out amongst the noise of thousands of messages that consumers see every day.
So, as part of creative skills, understanding how stories work and how to use them has multiple applications. At the basic level, it applies to all parts of writing skills like advertising copy, blogging and sales copy.
But you can use it with more visual areas like photography and video content. You can use it on your website and social media. And obviously, as we showed in the section above, it’s frequently used to create advertising and public relations content.
But don’t just consider media media channels as where you tell stories, there are many more opportunities beyond that.
For example, any time you have to physically present your brand or business to others. At an investor presentation, or even speaking directly to your target audience for example.
If you are lucky enough to talk directly to your end customers, think about those situations as opportunities to tell your brand story.
Storytelling is a powerful communication technique. It’s a great tool for your front-line staff to learn. Stories make your brand feel more human and real. That’s a good thing during a sales call or a customer visit.
When you think about your brand identity, it’s important to think about how you can use brand storytelling to bring your essence, values and personality to life.
You can’t just tell people that you are innovative, engaging, funny or whatever.
You need to find stories that show them.
Stories are driven by actions and when audiences process stories, they do so in a visual way.
But, they also look for emotions and depth of character they can relate to. In stories, emotions usually drive deeper connections than just stating logical facts.
So, if your business struggled to get started or had a major setback, share how this felt as part of your story. If you took a risk and it paid off, share how excited and elated you felt. This humanisation of the brand creates deeper connections with your target audience.
Remember, that struggle and conflict are key parts of any story. So, the more honest you can be about the “bad stuff” and the “hard stuff”, the more engaging your story will be.(Check out our article on overcoming marketing barriers to storytelling for example).
Stories where everything goes well, the characters have no flaws, and there are no problems, are frankly boring. Your brand storytelling shouldn’t be boring.
Brand stories are not for playing it safe and sanitising the message. They should show how you overcame adversity. Or, how you challenged the status quo, and what the result has been.
If your brand had to overcome or challenge established players, or disrupt a less than optimal way of doing things, use that as part of your brand storytelling. Let the stories you tell bring to life why your values are important to you. And, why they matter for the audience.
Ultimately your brand storytelling is not for you, it’s for your audience.
It should aim to build a community, tribe or following to buy into what you think, say and do in your brand story.
Stories are meant to be shared and discussed. So, try to write in a way that encourages questions and discussions. Give your target audience ways to ask you questions directly, so you can engage them in conversations.
Your brand storytelling is an experience that they consume, so make them feel good about that experience.
Think about what you want them to feel after they’ve seen or heard your story. What is it you want them to do? If it’s to drive engagement with the brand, make sure there are ways for them to do that. Make sure the style of your story is authentic and human. Be empathetic to the needs of your consumers.
Make it feel like you are talking directly with them. And, that they can solve problems through engaging with you.
We’ll close this guide off, with a look at the first brand story you should aim to tell. And that’s your brand origin story.
You’d normally make this prominent on your website and through your social platforms. It’s usually the first story, new potential customers will see or read about you.
These areas are great places to talk to your consumers about why you exist. How did you come into being? What was the idea or vision that inspired or motivated you? What did you do about it, that got you to what you do today?
But importantly, think about how to make it NOT boring. How can you tell a compelling story? One that hooks the audience and makes them want to find out more.
What drama, actions and anecdotes can you use to bring the story to life?
There’s a well-repeated story for example that Apple started off in the garage of Steve Job’s childhood home. Even, if this story was later shown to be a bit of a myth, it’s still part of the story of Apple. People can relate to this rags-to-riches visualisation.
Beyond basic historic facts, think about the emotions behind your origin story. Was there something that made your brand proud, scared or happy?
Brand stories are more than just bullet point bios, they should aim to transcend culture, time and location.
So for example, how do you cope with everyday adversities?
This helps the audience feel on your side. What is it you do that shows that you care about your customers? That you understand their pain points.
Use your origin story to bring out your purpose, vision and mission. Show your culture and personality.
Your brand storytelling should aim to make you stand out and be memorable and engaging for your target audience. It brings to life your values, the best behaviours of your best employees on their best days.
For all businesses, it’s a challenge to find, engage and connect with audiences. Brand storytelling is a key creative skill that helps you meet these challenges.
Storytelling taps into deep and habitual ways that people communicate with each other.
Learn how to structure and tell your brand story in an engaging way, and you’ll make deeper and longer-lasting connections with your audience.
You unlock a powerful way to bring your brand identity to life and connect with customers. It helps you achieve your business goals, and that’s what you want, right?
Because, after all, you want your story to end happily ever after.
For more on what it takes to get brand storytelling into your business, check out our story of the mighty battle against marketing barriers.
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We believe storytelling is an important creative skill that businesses can use to drive their brand identity and create better connections with consumers. But we recognise, it’s not often discussed as a key creative skill. So, we offer coaching and consulting services to help share storytelling knowledge, ideas and concepts that can help raise your marketing and creative game.
Contact us to learn more about creative skills development. Or check out our coaching and consulting services to see how we can help.
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