Brand storytelling: Narrative theory

Brand stories can attract and engage consumers but some sectors are finding it more difficult to get their message across.

(Above: Barclays’ LifeSkills programme is part of its storytelling initiative to rake back trust after the Libor-rigging scandal)

What’s the story of your brand? Storytelling, or providing consistent and compelling content to build a picture of a company, is becoming more important as people scrutinise brands and businesses. And while storytelling is a broad concept that means different things to different marketers, exclusive research suggests that some brands are doing better than others with their stories and how they tell them.

The study by research firm OnePoll, which was commissioned by brand storytelling agency Aesop, attempts to define storytelling according to 10 criteria, including whether brands “have a clear sense of purpose”, whether consumers are “intrigued to see what they’ll do next” and whether those brands “create their own world”. More than 1,500 UK adults were asked to rate 100 major brands against this criteria before OnePoll used the responses to compile a list of the best storytelling brands (see box, below) .

To see the whole top 100 click the link under ‘tables’ on the right

Given the central role that storytelling plays in developing a brand’s identity, it is perhaps not surprising that the ranking is dominated by some of the world’s biggest brands, with Apple topping the list and other brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Heinz featuring in the top 10. But the study also offers an interesting insight into perceptions towards different industries. For example, while retail, food and drink and FMCG brands fare particularly well in the rankings, brands in the utilities, financial services and automotive sectors are considered less adept at storytelling.

The highest ranking financial services brand (Visa) is 30th out of 100, while the best storytelling bank or building society (Nationwide) is only 53rd. The top storytelling brand in the utilities sector comes 55th (British Gas) and the bottom four brands overall are all utilities, with Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) receiving the lowest ranking.

So do these results show that it is difficult for certain industries to engage consumers in their stories? Are people less interested in the stories that particular brands have to tell – and if, so how can those brands overcome this challenge?

SSE recently took steps to overhaul its approach to storytelling by hiring former Mars and Procter & Gamble (P&G) senior marketer Jenny Ashmore as its first chief marketing officer. Utility firms are facing consumer hostility over rising energy bills and sustainability issues but it is hoped Ashmore’s expertise from the FMCG sector will help the company to tell stories that better resonate with customers. Following her appointment, she told Marketing Week that one of her first priorities is to look at “how SSE powers the everyday lives of our customers”.

Stories need content and emotion. Successful brands differentiate themselves through storytelling

Ed Woodcock, strategy director and co-founder of Aesop, believes that a clear and popular purpose is crucial to a good brand story. For example, he argues that Apple’s top ranking is the result of its almost evangelical commitment to creating technology that improves people’s lives and the clarity with which it tells that story. “Its sense of mission manifests itself in everything it does: from the design of its products and stores to the simplicity of its advertising,” he says. Apple is currently running a campaign using long copy to explain the story behind its products.

Woodcock suggests that in the case of the utility companies, this sense of purpose is obscured by poor marketing or bad publicity. “Even though utilities could be said to have a noble mission, perhaps the story the consumer tends to hear is ‘fat cat utility rips off defenceless consumers’,” he says.

Financial services brands are also seeking to rewrite their stories in a way that helps regain consumer trust. In March, for example, Barclays (ranked 66th in the research) launched LifeSkills, a citizenship programme that aims to support young people looking to get into work. The initiative is a core part of efforts to re-position Barclays as a ‘values-driven’ business under new chief executive Antony Jenkins, following the Libor rate-rigging scandal last year and the departure of former boss Bob Diamond.

Storytelling is an important aspect of the project as Barclays seeks to make LifeSkills relatable to the wider public. For example, in June the brand agreed a deal with ITV that saw it run short films about the LifeSkills project during the ITN News ad break each night for a week. The films followed two young people on work experience from the Sunday before they started through to the end of the week, covering their experiences each day.

“This was a really different and engaging approach,” says Sara Bennison, managing director of marketing communications, Barclays UK Retail Bank. “The ads themselves became a way of passing on a little life lesson everyday about work experience and what you learn.”

Fairy Liquid (9th) has remained true to its ‘domestic harmony’ story while injecting fresh interest

Bennison notes that it will take many years for Barclays to build up this story and change consumer perceptions about the brand, although she points out that the bank has been engaged in long-term storytelling since before the Libor scandal. This includes a relationship with Mumsnet through which Barclays tells stories about how its products and services are used by mothers and families. The company also works with content agency Redwood to support its storytelling work.

“You try to build it over time because that’s where the credibility comes from,” she says. “We’re three years into the partnership with Mumsnet and it’s some of our most engaging work because it has had that time behind it. We’ve stuck with it and made sure we’re always talking about the stories that are interesting to mums.”

Similarly, Honda (ranked 57th in the research) tries to take a consistent, long-term approach to storytelling. Earlier this month, the car brand launched a campaign to run during its sponsorship of Channel 4 Documentaries. The animated film, which can be split up into segments, shows an engineer’s hands playing with Honda products and in the process viewers see the story of Honda’s landmark achievements. This includes some of its early racing vehicles, the original Honda Civic and the humanoid robot Asimo.

The campaign is the latest in Honda’s four-year partnership with Channel 4 Documentaries, which aims to tell stories in a similar vein to the programme. Honda’s UK head of marketing Olivia Dunn suggests that the brand is known for taking a “quirky” approach to its marketing and for celebrating its heritage: a strategy that helps it stand out from competitors. It also works with content agency River to develop its storytelling channels. Although automotive is rated as the 8th best sector for storytelling, Honda comes fourth out of the 10 car brands featured, beating Toyota and Nissan.

“Honda has a vast and interesting heritage and I believe we’ve produced our most innovative and successful marketing where we’ve been true to that heritage and used it in our advertising and stories,” says Dunn.

Reasserting heritage 

Other brands have had success where they have reasserted their heritage and stories following a period of turmoil. For example, British Airways (ranked 50th overall) saw a turnaround in its fortunes after deciding to relaunch in 2011 using the slogan ‘To Fly. To Serve’ from its original coat of arms.

The relaunch helped the brand to consolidate around a simple story about the brand’s pioneering history and service credentials and coincided with an upswing in consumer perceptions of BA following a period of industrial and economic unrest. BA’s head of marketing Abigail Comber says the brand continues to build on the To Fly. To Serve story through its latest product innovations.

“Travel broadens the mind and storytelling is part of sharing those great experiences that travel affords,” she says. “Maybe some of the stories are for our customers to tell, but with over 90 years of history, we still have plenty to talk about. There’s still so much happening today – for instance, we just took delivery of our first A380, the world’s largest commercial aircraft. This is part of our £5bn investment in our product, and there’s plenty more stories like this to come.”

Crucial to a great brand story is an effective combination of the past and present. Fairy liquid, which comes 9th overall in the OnePoll research and is top in the non-food and drink FMCG category, has maintained a consistent story during its 53-year history around virtues such as mildness and domestic harmony.

But despite this strong heritage, Fairy Liquid is also parent company P&G’s most popular brand on Facebook, with more than 280,000 fans. To celebrate the Diamond Jubilee last year, the brand relaunched a version of its historic white bottle, but it did so by asking its social media audience to share their memories of the brand and vote for the best limited edition design.

“Every story needs to have content and emotion,” says P&G corporate marketing director Roisin Donnelly. “The brands that are really succeeding today are the ones that differentiate themselves through storytelling.”


Top 10 storytelling brands

1. Apple
2. Cadbury
3. Walkers
4. Coca-Cola
5. McDonald’s
6. Marks & Spencer
7. Kellogg’s
8. Heinz
9. Fairy
10. IKEA

Source: OnePoll, commissioned by Aesop 

Brand category ranking

1. Retail
2. Food and soft drinks
3. FMCG – cosmestics, toiletries and household
4. Restaurants/food chains
5. Telecoms/tech
6. Airlines
7. Alcohol
8. Automotive
9. Financial services
10. Utilities

Source: OnePoll, commissioned by Aesop



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