Brand Storytelling: It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means


The hottest topic in marketing right now, according to a recent survey by Incite Group, is brand storytelling. More than half of respondents cited storytelling as an essential element for their marketing department.

But what do we mean by brand storytelling?

It’s tempting to think that brands have always told stories. “Have a Coke and a smile.” Nike’s “just do it.” Apple’s demand that we “think different.”

But those are slogans, not stories. And while they may lend themselves to stories within an ad (think teens meeting cute over a soda or athletes achieving astonishing feats despite setbacks) that’s still not the same as brand storytelling.

Brand storytelling really means creating a narrative that can encompass connected stories and slogans.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of working on the problem of defining narrative with a fantastic group of thinkers. Working together, we put together a book called Narrative Generation that has proven to be pretty prescient. Looking at the latest trends in the Incite Group report, I realized that the definitions and structure for narrative we created in 2015 are even more relevant today.

To understand narrative versus story, think about children’s fables. They’re all different. In one, Red Riding Hood is menaced by a bad wolf. In another, Snow White goes into hiding after her stepmother tries to kill her. Then there’s Hansel and Gretel who end up trapped inside a witch’s candy house.

But the tales all have something in common. They are all part of a narrative that explains to children that it’s a dangerous world out there and they need to be cautious and eventually look out for themselves.

Companies, non-profits and government agencies can (and should) have narratives. Narratives shape the way you communicate with customers, investors and even internal employees. When a company has a clear narrative, it translates into a strong identity and gives you a way to cut through the marketing clutter and stand apart.

Once you have a clear narrative, it can inform every piece of content and communication coming from your company. Blog posts, web copy, social media, newsletters or video —narrative gives everything you produce context and continuity.

A great example of a company with an authentic narrative is Patagonia. The outdoor clothing company is dedicated to building quality clothing while protecting the environment. They live this narrative not just through PR stunts, like a Black Friday event where customers were encouraged to get their jackets repaired instead of buying new ones, but through written content as well. Their blog, The Cleanest Line, doesn’t just tell stories of adventurers who go out into the great unknown wearing Patagonia gear. It also features articles dedicated to informing customers about environmental policy issues. All of this content is able to live together in harmony because of Patagonia’s clear narrative.

Here are the most important steps to creating your own narrative:

Know who you are: This might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many organizations can’t clearly explain who they are in fewer than three sentences. This understanding is more than just an elevator pitch; it reflects deep thinking about what your organization is trying to do, how it is different from competitors and who it is trying to reach.

Make sure you are being authentic: Again — sounds obvious. But plenty of companies also lie to themselves all the time. Consider a car company that sells a “luxury” car at a low price. Chances are good the car is either not really a luxury car or the price isn’t really that low. Or imagine a brand that fancies itself all the rage with millennials when its customers are actually middle-aged soccer moms. If you can’t be honest about who you are, your audience will feel your insincerity.

Have a call to action: A call to action does not need to be a direct command. While something like “get out and vote” is a call to action, so is “make sure to care for yourself.” Voting is a direct action. Caring for yourself is more of a mind shift. Every organization can have a call to action. Understand what your call to action is, and it will help you shape your narrative.

Avoid jargon: Too often, companies become so trapped in their own little bubble that they start speaking their own language. Journalists like to rail against jargon but we’re guilty of it as well. We throw around terms like “flacks,” “hed,” and “stet” as if they were accepted parts of the English language, but the truth is few people outside of a newsroom would know what we were talking about. That’s jargon. As you craft your narrative, make sure you’re using words that are clear and precise and that anyone can understand.

Today’s crowded media landscape can be frustrating for companies trying to get their narrative out there, but remember that there are also more ways to tell your story yourself. As you create your narrative, it will lend itself to thought leadership, social media and every other piece of communication you share. In this way you’re creating brand storytelling that will help to powerfully define your company.

Need help crafting your narrative? Let’s talk. Drop us a line or call us at 312-772-5893.