Why read this? : We look at the deeper meaning of brand character. Learn why choices you make under pressure shape your brand’s true story. We share examples of how and how not to do it. Read this to learn how to better show your true brand character.
Storytelling is a never-ending source of ideas. Brand storytelling uses some of those ideas to help you build your brand and connect with customers. Brands can use stories to help move customers along their buying journey.
Character can mean different things in storytelling :-
- A quirky / offbeat person – Oh, that Harry guy, he’s a bit of a character.
- A specific person in the story – I liked the book, but the lead character was annoying.
- The underlying nature of how someone is – When the going got tough, her real character shone through.
It’s this last meaning that carries the most weight. It’s the one brands have to get right when they tell their story. We like Robert McKee’s definition in Story. He writes character is …
“… revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature”.
In most stories, this demonstration of character focuses on the hero. But in brand storytelling, the customer is the hero of the story. So character here is more about how the brand (as a guide) helps the customer. The brand character is revealed in how they help solve the customer’s problem.
To be a credible part of the customer’s story, you have to look at the brand’s underlying “essential nature”, as McKee puts it. You understand brand character by the choices the brand makes under pressure.
Bad choices made under pressure
With so many terrible things going on in the world right now, you’d imagine many brands would be feeling under pressure, right?
The lingering after-effects of the pandemic on people’s health and the economy, for example.
The constant cycle of horrific weather. Heatwaves and floods destroying homes and affecting food supplies across the world.
Rampant inflation. Gun crime. Racism. Plus, let’s not forget the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine.
On top of all this, you’ve got the ongoing shambolic and self-centred actions of our politicians. The people who are supposed to represent us and lead us into a better future. Instead, most of them seem to spend their time globe-trotting on our tax dollars, bickering with each other, and looking after their mates with jobs for the boys.
Who wouldn’t be feeling under some pressure amongst all that?
Well, maybe not the bosses at all the big fuel companies hitting record profits as pensioners struggle to keep warm in the European winter. They seem just fine.
Or maybe not all the big tech companies laying off staff in their thousands just to protect their billion-dollar-plus bottom lines. No real pressure with those guys.
And maybe not all those big businesses, still happily making a buck from selling and working with Russia. Doing all right there, spasibo.
We can’t be alone in thinking many big brands aren’t showing great character at the moment. Where are the brands sticking up for their customers and staff? Living the values they talk about in their fancy corporate report. Using their power to do good, instead of using it to fill the already stuffed pockets of shareholders.
Good choices made under pressure
Well, it’s not all bad. But you have to look hard to find examples of businesses showing good character.
Patagonia’s founder transferring ownership of the company to a not-for-profit trust was one from the end of last year.
The philanthropy of the owner of India’s massive Tata group, and the billions he donates to charities and good causes is another.
And maybe, at a push, the grocery retailers keeping basic products at fixed low prices.
(Let us know if we’ve missed any obvious recent stories of brands doing good).
There are probably more examples in the smaller businesses and not-for-profit sectors. In those areas, business leaders have a more direct connection with customers. It seems the further away the bosses are from real customers, the easier they find it to screw them over.
Brand character means don’t be a hypocrite
Now, don’t get us wrong. Business is business. Everyone’s entitled to make a profit. In most categories, we’re not forced to buy specific products. And there’s price competition so brands can’t completely stuff us.
But it’s those categories like energy, groceries and tech where there are no real alternatives, that these huge profits rub us up the wrong way.
Let’s call it. It’s greed and self-interest. And those aren’t signs of good character.
What really shows those businesses’ true character though is their attempts to gloss over what’s obvious to the rest of us. They’re making profits from other people’s pain, and that’s the choice they made when under pressure. They hypocritically blame external factors and extenuating circumstances. But no one’s forcing them to raise prices and lay off staff. They’re not in danger of going out of business, just not delivering such mega profits as they did before.
So, it’s hypocritical to talk about being there for your customers when you’re screwing them over on price to keep your shareholders happy.
You can’t promote your vision and values if your actions clearly show you not living up to them.
And you can’t claim to be building long-term customer relationships when you’re blatantly “cheating” on that relationship right now.
Brand character means doing the right thing by customers
We realise this might sound like a bit of a political drum-beating. But for us, it goes way beyond that. It’s about basic human decency and values. Standing by and supporting those in need.
Who we should be giving our attention and hard-earned dollars to are the brands who do the right thing. The brands showing depth of character. For us, that’s down to 3 things :-
- Live up to your values.
- Be truthful.
- Hold the “villains” accountable.
Live up to your values
Brand values are part of a brand’s identity. They lay out what the brand stands for. Marketers like to talk about them because they take the brand beyond a transactional relationship with customers. They help create deeper, emotional connections.
But if your actions don’t live up to those values, then your values are worthless. In fact, less than worthless, because they show your brand tells lies.
So, brands with true character double down on their values when things get tough.
They make choices that live those values, even if those have negative consequences. There’s a great quote from Bill Bernbach that it’s not a principle (and arguably your values are a type of principle) unless it costs you money.
That means doing what you say you’re going to do. It means telling the truth.
The “truth” in brand and marketing can be very subjective though. What we think is the truth may not be the same as what you think it is.
But the essence of truth-telling is saying what you believe to be reality. People may disagree with your perception of the truth, but they can at least believe you’re telling your version of your truth.
Customers have a gut instinct about when a brand is being truthful. That instinct may not always be right, but it helps customers feel more connected to brands they feel can be trusted.
So brands with character need to shout out their truth. Not the corporate PR spin and weasel words that it’s someone else’s fault they’re laying people off and putting up prices.
If that’s your choice, be truthful about it. Deal with the consequences. Customers may not like it, but they’ll respect your honesty.
Hold the “villains” accountable
Brands usually have approval systems to stop them from doing anything blatantly dishonest.
But often, weasely leaders hide behind these and still make self-centred decisions. They’re the real villains of this story.
CEOs who lead companies to the cliff edge, and then depart with multimillion-dollar pay-off packages. All the jobs for the boys nepotism which stops people with talent and skill from getting to the top, because they didn’t go to the right private school, or aren’t members of the right golf club.
The idea killers and those who put up barriers to marketing and creativity. Those are the antagonists of this story who should be held to account. Who should suffer the consequences of their weak character choices. They’re the reason we’re in this mess.
Of course, only the shareholders can hold them accountable. And they won’t as long as they keep making big profits. So, you can only really fight back with the tools you have to hand.
Look at what brands say versus what brands do to work out their character. Stick with the ones that do the right thing. Walk away from the ones that don’t.
Tell your friends and family about brands that show true character. Complain to customer service when they do things you disagree with. If you’re brave enough, call them out on social media and in public forums. Make a noise, or they won’t hear you.
It’s the only way to take these “villains” on. While they continue to thrive, the story’s still got a long way to go.
The best brand identities are based on strong character
We’re not saying your brand has to be perfect. Every brand makes mistakes. It’s how you learn and grow.
But underneath, deep down in your brand identity, you should have values that reflect how you’ll act when life gets tough. Which should reflect the choices you make under pressure. Which show your true brand character.
We don’t claim to get this 100% right ourselves by the way. But there are categories, businesses and brands we avoid because we don’t believe in their character.
When times get tough for us, we look back to our values and we’re happy what we do still lives up to those. That’s where we think our brand’s strength of character lies.
Can you say the same for your brand?
Conclusion - Time to show your brand character
Character in storytelling is about the choices you make under pressure. And we believe that applies to brands and their stories, as well as the heroes you see in movies and read about in books.
With great power comes great responsibility, advised Uncle Ben to the newly super-powered Peter Parker. We think that advice also works for brands.
Brands have a responsibility to their customers and staff to do the right thing. To live their values. To be truthful. And to hold their villains to account.
The customer’s the hero in marketing, remember? Your brand’s supposed to be the one guiding them to a happy ending to their story. Your brand needs strong character to do that, otherwise it’s you who’ll end up being the villain of the story.