What’s the big idea behind the story of your brand?

Your company’s own story must be big enough to inspire people to tell each other more stories about your brand.

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Social media has brought the concept of brand story-telling into the limelight once again. But are the stories you’re telling big enough to capture your audience’s imagination?

I like stories. In fact, I sometimes think the only contribution I make as a planner is to spin the occasional yarn.

For example, a few years ago I was having dinner with film producer David Puttnam. (The fact that there were 30 other people at the table in no way detracts from the point of the story.) After a fascinating talk about a life spent telling stories, both in ads and in movies, Lord Puttnam opened the floor to questions.

Emboldened by drink, I put him on the spot: “You’re a master story-teller,” I began, obsequious as ever. “But we live in an age when social media and democratic access to the means of creation are available to anyone with a smartphone.”

Puttnam smiled, sensing where the question was going. I continued to what I imagined to be the sucker-punch. “Given that everyone is now a social story-teller, is there any future for the story-telling industry you represent?”

He gave me an expression I last saw on the face of my sixth form history teacher – a mixture of amusement and pity. Then he launched into one of the most profound commentaries on communications I have ever heard.

The gist of it was this: yes, anyone can be a storyteller, but there will always be a need for big stories. They magnify the power of the little stories. They make them resonate with a deeper truth. And those are the kind of stories that great movies tell.

I was spellbound, inspired and… confused. So I decided to do a little reading around the subject of stories and see what I could discover.

I started with managerial theories of story-telling. Long-suffering psychologists have sat and observed hours of business meetings in order to understand the way managers use stories. It seems that in this context, stories help managers build consensus by creating a bridge between the past, present and future.

I then discovered the writings of Professor Henry Jenkins, who is a prophet of what he has christened “convergence culture”. He has studied the way in which people create individual content online.

Like Puttnam, Jenkins has spotted that individual content creation usually happens within existing “big story” constructs, such as the shared universes of games or sci-fi and fantasy film franchises. A thousand creative flowers bloom online. But not without the seed of an idea, and that idea is almost always a story.

Eventually, like all seekers after stories, I descended on Joseph Campbell.

By analysing the common elements of stories from seemingly every culture and era, Campbell identified a series of “meta-myths”. These are universal stories that seem to be hard-wired into the human psyche in a similar way to Carl Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious”.

All very diverting. But what had I learned? I’d learned that people like stories because they help them make sense of an otherwise chaotic and disturbing world. They enjoy telling stories just as much as they enjoy hearing them. But most of these individual stories happen within the context of bigger ones. And those bigger stories tend to follow the same plotlines wherever you look in human history.

The same applies to brand stories. I’ve noticed that the stories of great brands all cleave to certain common narrative constructs. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that there are only seven basic brand stories or “meta-myths”.

The first is about the brand’s birth – its creation myth. In its heyday, Saab based its narrative on its aviation origins. Apple is a brand rich in creation mythology, much of it centred on a charismatic founder and a powerful founding vision.

Other brands tell a story that celebrates a core strength. Omega has the Speedmaster and its rugged associations with the heroism of human spaceflight, accentuated by that timepiece’s vital role in saving the crew of Apollo 13.

Conversely, there are brands that have the confidence to tell a story about their weaknesses. The legendary Avis ad campaign, “we try harder”, wouldn’t have come about if its chief executive Robert Townsend hadn’t seen the wisdom in frankly admitting the brand’s runner-up status.

Some brands tell stories about a time, others a place. Ralph Lauren is perhaps the greatest brand manager of our era. He is a master of appropriating history and geography for his brands, be it the 1920s of The Great Gatsby or the wide open spaces of the American West.

The narrative backbone of many great brands is provided by their purpose – their “why” rather than their “what”. Costa exists to save the world from mediocre coffee (whether that story will survive the proliferation of self-service Costa outlets is questionable). And before it started trying to be sexy, Volvo existed to make driving safer.

Lastly, a common brand story is one of struggle. As many politicians have discovered, it’s not always a sustainable proposition to define yourself by what you’re not. However, if you have enough substance to support your stance, you can even enlist your enemy’s help in defining yourself. Virgin is notoriously a master of this. So too is Dyson.

You can take or leave my taxonomy of brand stories. But my ultimate learning from Puttnam, Jenkins and Campbell is this: if you want people to tell each other stories about your brand, your own story must be big enough to inspire them to do it.

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