The art of storytelling for your brand

4 June 2020
By – Mike Sweeting

Story Telling

The other day I came across an article about storytelling frameworks. An interesting read, but that’s not the point, it got me thinking… How does, or even how can, a brand story fit into a traditionally storytelling framework? Is there a structure that a brand can use to tell deep and meaningful stories?

But wait… first what is a brand story and why should a brand have one?

According to this definition; “A brand story is a cohesive narrative that encompasses the facts and feelings that are created by your brand (or business, if you prefer). Unlike traditional advertising, which is about showing and telling about your brand, a story must inspire an emotional reaction.”

So a brand story is the emotional thread that runs through the entire customer journey and experience with a brand. This story isn’t about the products you sell or the services you provide. It’s much deeper than that. It’s about the most important thing of all, your customer. What is it that really keeps them up at night? What problem do they have that only your brand can solve?

A compelling and engaging narrative that is true to your brand and defines the brand mission… Easy right? Maybe, maybe not, but as a brand owner or marketing team it’s your job to really grasp the narrative and entwine it throughout all your brand touch points. And maybe, the best way to do this is to embrace the ancient art of storytelling.

So, what does every good story need? 

In Niklas’ blog about storytelling frameworks he laid out the structure that he successfully uses. Theme, concept, hero, villain, beginning, middle, and end. But could this work equally well for a brand story?

Well let’s start with the theme, ‘What’s the story about?’; or should it be ‘What does your brand do?’. Is it a romance or restaurant, a sci-fi or tech start-up, a biography or photography agency. Whatever industry you sit in, it’s likely that you’re not alone. Remember, this story has been told a thousand times, but never from this point of view. So ask yourself, ‘what makes your brand different and what’s your USP?’ This is what gives your story a strong concept.

Surely every story needs a hero… is this your brand, or will your customers see themselves taking on the leading role? Equally every hero needs a villain to playoff against; where there is light there is always dark. What problems are your customers having that your brand solves? Theme, concept, hero and villain. That’s the groundwork for the narrative of any brand. 

This brand narrative plays out across the whole customer journey. It’s an emotional thread that starts as your audience or customers meet the brand for the first time, and continues through each of the ‘4 customer relationship stages’. Meet, know, trust and agree. So, like any good book, you could split each of the relationship stages into; the beginning, middle and end.

The beginning. A story begins with a hook and the inciting incident, this is when the audience first meets your brand. How do they feel? How does the villain influence their thoughts? And what is the initial brand touch point?

The middle. As the story escalates the villain will become prominent, until it reaches a tipping point before the big breakthrough. As the audience becomes increasingly unhappy, what do they learn about your brand that causes a change in opinion. This is all about building trust between your brand and your audience.

The end. This is the pay off. The hero faces the villain, and hopefully comes out on top. This is where we aim for our audience to end up. The narrative that a brand shares with their audience creates a deep relationship that is built on trust. The final stage is where your brand convinces the customer that their problems (the villain) are easily solved.

That’s all great in theory, but does this work? How does it play out in real life?

“Coffee is social – it brings people together.” Howard Schultz Starbucks CEO.

To test this theory, I would need a brand with a strong brand story that we could apply to the framework. Starbucks, a global brand built on gathering people together to share stories. With a human centric brand mission to make coffee social, which was crucial to their original success, Starbucks seemed like a great subject to test out this theory.

The Starbucks example. 

Theme: A global chain of coffee shops that serve a range of drinks and food that can be consumed in location or taken away.

Concept: A venue for people to meet up, engage in conversation and share stories. It is their extra place away from work and home that serves human connection. A local coffee shop ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time’.

Hero of the story: Starbucks

VillainA nagging feeling that coffee shops can’t offer a meaningful experience. The want of a place to escape where; people, culture and communities matter.

The beginningThe customer decides to go out to grab a coffee and discusses this with their colleagues. The ‘villain’ makes an appearance and the nagging feeling sets in. “I won’t be fulfilled by this experience!” The customer becomes aware of the ‘hero’, Starbucks! The Starbucks brand hooks the customer’s attention, whether this is the branded shop front or an advertisement. “This looks interesting, but I’m sure it will be just like the others.”

The middle: The customer enters the shop, and is inspired by the decor, music, people chatting and the buzzing vibe. Not to mention the sweet and robust aroma of roasted coffee! But the ‘villain’ escalates the nagging feeling. “The queues pretty long!” The customer decides to join the queue. “It’s very crowded in here.” It’s time to order… “The barista seems friendly, but I feel rushed to order! I’ll just get the same as normal.” “I’m not sure what to do next…”

The barista asks the customer their name and lets them know their order will be ready to collect from the counter shortly. The customer has a breakthrough… “Could Starbucks be the coffee shop that respects people?” The customer takes a seat with their order and soaks in the atmosphere. “Could Starbucks be the coffee shop where culture matters.” The customer’s colleagues join him at his table and start chatting. “Could Starbucks be the coffee shop that makes coffee social?”

The end: The ‘hero’, Starbucks, is now primed to take on the ‘villain’s’ nagging feeling. The customer leaves Starbucks feeling quite pleased with their experience. After downloading the Starbucks app and following the social accounts, the customer becomes aware of Starbucks’ ‘Upstanders’ series. The ‘hero’, Starbucks, makes its play to defeat the ‘villain’ by creating and distributing two seasons of convenient, thoughtful and engaging stories featuring ordinary people creating positive change in their communities. “Starbucks has human connection at its very core!”

The ‘hero’ defeats the ‘villain’ and an inspired customer has become a brand advocate and an engaged member of their community. The customer now frequently makes trips to Starbucks, and most importantly feels fulfilled when they attend the place where people, culture and communities matter.

Ok, so what can we learn from this?

It seems that a brand’s marketing strategy fits quite nicely into this storytelling framework. At the very least this structure can help a brand to form a narrative and to develop foresight into how customers will be interacting and playing out their roles within the brands overarching story. But can this help build real and meaningful narratives? Well, I have a feeling that this example only touches the surface of how brands can benefit from the art of storytelling. So I’m sure I will be developing this theory further, and applying it to real working situations.

Ever since humans have been communicating, we have been telling stories. Stories to teach lessons, spread news and convince others to believe in ideas. We have always understood that the key to getting someone on our side is a compelling and engaging narrative. So, if we can’t engage people with a story, which they can relate to, how can we expect them to invest in any brands, products or services.


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