Storytelling to create Superbrands

Here is the article I wrote for Superbrands Swedish Edition 2011.

One of the most recent trends in business communications is storytelling. It’s an ancient art that has been suppressed in the modern world in favour of data, facts and attributes. Superbrands though, have all found a way to resurrect storytelling in their DNA and this is one of the core reasons for their differentiation and success. Finding your brand story can unleash untold opportunities to connect to your audience in a more relevant, authentic and value creating way.

There are schools of thought that say B2B brands do not need the same brand building attention as their B2C counterparts and B2B Brands are purchase in a less emotional and more rational way than in a consumer market. This isn’t a view that I subscribe to. I believe that we engage with brands in the same way. We are motivated to engage with brands that are relevant and fulfill part of the personal story of the purchaser. We do not leave our consumer minds behind when we enter an office, so it’s no surprise that B2B Superbrands pay as much attention to the essence of great consumer brand building with techniques like storytelling.

Origin of stories

Before spoken communication evolved, stories people told stories though symbols, drawings and dance. Stories were the original medium of communication between people and they are how we started our vast capability for learning and education. Even before the written word was widely used, epic stories of wars, far off lands and monsters filled the evening air as a form of both entertainment but also as a way of creating learning, and establishing society values. It’s no surprise that storytelling at the heart of Aboriginal, African and all other ancient civilizations. Stories create meaning for ourselves and pass on our knowledge. Society uses stories to create an identity for its communities. These communities use stories to create understanding of the rules that apply.

So deep is this process of storytelling in our psychobiology that the brands we connect with today are evaluated subconsciously by which story they tell us. Superbrands tell us stories that resonate and are relevant. If you do not tell a story that resonates with your audience, you will not be recognised and will disappear. All too often brands today are built on platforms that communicate product attributes or benefits but are not part of a story. When your market research shows you that your audience is not aligned with your messages it is likely that they are not becoming part of your targets personal story.

Brand Stories

It does not matter if you are creating a business-to-business brand, a business to consumer brand or you as personal brand. The aim of your communications will be to strike a relevant chord in your prospects mind. Getting this attention has been the work of every branding creative agency for the last fifty years. Initially it was easy, but as the volume of brand information increased it got much harder to be heard through all the noise. What separates out the Superbrands is their ability grabs this attention. This is done through delivering relevance and meaning which creates a long lasting connection with your audience. The best way of creating relevance for your brand is to ensure your brand plays part of your target audience’s personal story. So it is not about you creating a great story for your brand, it is about knowing your audience and their story and how your brand fits in to that story. The great thing about stories is that there are only a few basic stories and they go across cultures. If you have ever read a story to children you remember that if you miss out a word by mistake, a child will to correct you because they know these stories so well. There is something about a story that even if you have heard it many times you want to hear the end. The cinema industry knows this well. It creates films based on well-known stories and even though you know how the plot will unfold, you still want to see the end. Good stories are based on six basic themes.

  1. Why I am here stories: for the right to speak, authenticity and relevance
  2. Who I am stories: for authenticity, relevance & personality affinity
  3. Where are we going stories: to define role, relevance & transformation
  4. What is my vision stories: defines journey, future, who is with me
  5. Where we came from stories: defines values and heritage, journey to date & lessons learnt
  6. We have a problem/ solution story: defines issues and solutions, call to action and resolution

People build up stories based on these themes which you can think of as an inner library. When they encounter a new object they generally fit to one or more of these categories. Your brand will be measured against way that other brands fit into these story themes. If your brand can enable the audience to fulfill that story, better than another brand, you will have created deep and long lasting brand loyalty.

To understand how your brand can tell an impactful story we must introduce the role of archetypes and metaphors. We all know that great stories have compelling characters. Carl Jung’s analysis showed that there were a set of common characters universally understood and recognised and more importantly that these characters had story lines that they always followed. The characters are known as Archetypes who follow story Arcs. Great examples of these are the Hero (much discussed in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces). Other archetypes such as Jester, Magician, Sage and Guardian all have a defined personality and follow story arcs. When we think of brands, these archetypes can be translated into a brands personality. Audiences understand these brand personalities because the archetypes are universally recognized. Smart marketers understand their audiences and the how a brand will be incorporated as part of the personal journey or story. People use brands just like props in a film to accomplish tasks and to transition from one chapter to the next.

Superbrands are built by creating a personality that fits into the audience’s story arc. The great news is that when brands get this right the effort communicate the brands personality is significantly lower than unfocused brands. When you look to brands that work in this way, you will instantly recognise them as brands that launched with relevance and created instant market penetration with minimal need for mass communication. In fact these brands are characterised by audience word of mouth communication which isn’t a surprise as because word of mouth communication is storytelling. We do this every day by telling small stories to each other over coffee or other places where we meet. We tell stories to each other and incorporate relevant brands into those stories but we only incorporate stories that are easy to tell. Building brand stories based on archetypes allows your audience both understand your brand and re tell it.

Brand Storytelling Manifesto

The Brand Storytelling Manifesto sets out to provide a framework to change that future for your brand. The central theme for this is storytelling that allows your customers to understand and interact with your brand. Here is the manifesto.

  1. Employ left and right brain tactics: Include the emotional aspects of your brand as well as the rational
  2. Fulfil human hierarchy of needs: Fulfil a higher need state than your competition
  3. Dig for metaphors and archetypes: Base stories on well known story arcs and metaphors
  4. Persuasions, motivation and enthusiasm: Create fans not just customers
  5. Create evidence based stories: Be able support with evidence claims made in your stories
  6. Choose your point of view: Altering the perspective the story is told from can change the story
  7. Engage word of mouth advertising: Set up stories that can be retold easily
  8. Open source branding: Plan to let go of your brand and let your fans help you create it
  9. Make your brand authentic: Create credibility with consistent actions
  10. Have a beyond the brand strategy: Ensure all corporate stories  and activities support the brand stories

Business to Business branding in the next decade

As an example, I would single out the Schindler Group as a well thought through B2B brand. With a heritage in creating lifts and escalators, they have not settled for the easy ground of function. They have effectively evolved their vision and value stories to encompass the concept of “vertical mobility”. They have rebuilt their brand around stories of moving people to higher places engaging many of the tools discussed in this article.

Just as we expect there is a large emphasis on branding and advertising towards consumers. Only in recent years has the B2B sector come under the spotlight. Just like their consumer counterparts B2B brands must build enthusiasm, trust, personality through a mixture of right and left brain stimuli to ensure the emotional as well as the rational brain is served. The stories that help you connect and understand what to do with consumer brands like Disney and Apple also help us connect with brands focused on business customers. Cisco, Fedex, 3M and Schindler are all examples of companies investing in creating both corporate as well as product and service brand stories.