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What makes a good brand story

Every brand would love a good story to tell. But it’s easy to be mistaken and focus on irrelevant aspects of storytelling. And yet, the crucial elements of a good brand story are but a few.

Few words have been as abused and misunderstood in the world of communication as “storytelling”.

The idea – beyond the hype – is correct. As Robert McKee points out, the classic story structure is the way in which humans tend to read and interpret reality (even their own life), so following narrative frameworks and conventions is the most efficient way to convey information and make it memorable.

As Robert McKee points out, the classic story structure is the way in which humans tend to read and interpret reality.

It’s not always clear, though, how one should bring this idea to life in branding. We often favor the most literal interpretation of the word “story”, so brands rush to create tales – long or short – sometimes with no need.

The good news here is that this effort is not always necessary, but at the same time we need a deeper kind of work that is not over with a well-produced film.

Brand story structure and brand myth

Photo by D A V I D S O N L U N A on Unsplash

The difference between brand myth and brand story

When we think about a brand story, we often have in mind what is called “brand myth”, i.e. the foundational story of the company, which takes on a mythical aura and should orient all of the brand’s future actions.

Brand myths are very popular among business and branding nerds, and some made it into popular culture, as happened with the story of Google starting out from inside a garage.

Brand myths can look like superficial anecdotes, but – if well told – they often define the fundamental elements of the brand story (which we will cover in a while).

Take the example of Chobani, the famous American yogurt brand. Its Turkish founder of Kurdish origins – Hamdi Ulukaya – started the company by saving a small yogurt plant that was about to be closed down by food giant Kraft. In this little tale, you can already find all the values that form Chobani’s brand story.

The brand myth often states very clearly the reason a brand exists, one of the fundamental blocks needed to build a narrative. Beware, though, not to approach the brand myth as pure fiction: while a bit of “editing” is allowed, the foundational myth should have its roots in reality.

While very important, the brand myth is but a part of the brand story. The brand myth is an event situated in time and now finished, the brand story is an open platform.

A brand story has no end, as it’s not a conventional narrative. It has the essential elements of a story, but it should be possible to extend it without limits. Think Star Wars more than Casablanca.

Chobani brand founder Story Hamdi Ulukaya

Chobani's founder, Hamdi Ulukaya

The goal and the antagonist

Every story worthy of the name is defined by a basic tension, and this tension is linked to the goal of the main character and to the antagonist that prevents him from reaching it.

This is probably an oversimplification, but it provides us with the two basic elements we need to build an effective brand story.

Without an antagonist, the protagonist won’t have any problem reaching his goal, and the story would have no tension. In other words, it would be boring. Better even, it wouldn’t be a story at all.

Take the example of Chobani. Its goal (beyond profit) is to produce yogurt in a traditional and natural way in the United States. Its antagonist is clearly Big Food, the food industry with its limitless power and unsustainable practices. It’s all written in the foundation myth, in the little plant saved from Kraft’s ax.

Or think instead about Apple in the 80s: its goal was to create beautiful computers, pleasant to use. Its antagonist? The conformism of corporate America, embodied by IBM and later by Microsoft.

Tension in a brand story is what inspires the most interesting communication ideas.

The goal is not necessarily a purpose as we define it today, i.e. a result in social or environmental impact. It’s rather what you can read in a company’s vision, something linked to business. Creating a good product is a goal, even though today we could find it not very sexy.

The antagonist, on the other hand, is not necessarily another company or brand. It could be a way of thinking, a system or some other “abstract” enemy. What matters is that it should stand in the way between the protagonist and his goal. It will be clear by now that defeating the antagonist once and for all is not the final goal.

The goal and the antagonist are often already well-identified in the brand myth, as we observed in the case of Chobani. This little story, if well-conceived, can help a brand understand what it works for and against. You might think your brand doesn’t have these elements but trust me: they are always there, you just have to dig deeper.

Brand collaborative story Mc Donald's fries

Photo by Marc Schaefer on Unsplash

Creating an open and collaborative story

Brand stories, as we said before, are not closed. They are not finished novels, but ongoing narratives.

Being a “platform”, a brand story can be told in many different ways: from a commercial to a page on the website, from a statement of the CEO to the post of a customer. It’s not bound to conventional format. Everything adds a piece to the puzzle.

A story can also evolve. In fact, it has to, so it can mirror the evolution of society and culture around it. Let’s go back to the Apple example: the nonconformist narrative doesn’t make so much sense today. Apple is not a niche brand anymore, and many of the categories its narrative was based upon don’t exist anymore. It’s no coincidence that Apple today chooses to focus on the wellbeing and privacy of its users, defending them from the “villains” in Silicon Valley. In this new chapter, Apple gave a new spring to its human-centric positioning, adapting it to a changed society.

The final step is to make the story collaborative. A brand, as we know, is not entirely planned top-down, but belongs to everyone: users take it, remix it, interpret it, sometimes associate it with values that the company hadn’t planned for. In other words, customers can become co-protagonist in the brand story, and sometimes they can hijack it. For a brand it’s vital to be always listening to its audience so it can understand when it’s time to rethink the narrative.

Even from a moment of crisis, a new, captivating chapter could be born.

Andrea Sublimio Strategist
AUTHOR:

Andrea Ciulu
Copywriter & Strategist

A creative and analytical thinker, with strong roots in advertising, Andrea crafts concepts, branding and communication strategies that make a difference.

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