PULL Inc. Blog

The art of brand storytelling is not copywriting.

by Thomson Dawson

in Brand Experience, Marketing Communications

In our firmly established social media era, marketing is no longer about persuasion and promotion, but connection and customer engagement–and nothing is more engaging to human beings than a compelling story.

In a world of micro segmentation and instant communication, controlling the marketing message is now next to impossible. Customers control the perceived narrative now. The headline of a recent Harvard Business Review blog post proclaims, “Marketing is dead”. These headlines seem to appear everywhere in the blogoshere these days. Everyone is proclaiming the demise of marketing in our social media driven world. To use Mark Twain’s iconic statement, rumors of the demise of marketing are greatly exaggerated. Marketing is not dead, but it has transformed into something traditional communication channels no longer serve very well. This shift is keeping marketers up late at night these days.

At the core of every great brand there must be a mythological narrative that transcends “marketing”. Iconic brands like Apple, Starbucks, Harley Davidson, Patagonia, and Herman Miller have at the core of their DNA a mythic storyline that inspires the actions, beliefs and behaviors of its devoted tribe members over the long term.

We are creatures of evolution. Humans have shared beloved stories since the dawn of our existence. The ancient tradition of storytelling serves to remind us of who we are, and how we should behave within the structures our village, our culture and our world at large. Brands are no different.

Brand storytelling is the art of connecting the hearts and minds of customers to shared values and ideals that define the “sacred truth” of why the brand exists and who benefits from its existence. Compelling brand stories serve to remind us of something sacred and valued about ourselves rather than promoting some new product feature or additive. Sacred brand stories are not veneer slapped onto the next ad campaign.

Brand storytelling is not copywriting.

There are certain verbal and visual story-based patterns that have always been influential to people in significant ways. We are born with this innate ability to feel and respond to stories, and how we feel about any idea directly influences our action and behavior.

In the noise and clutter of ubiquitous marketing, only those brands that rely on the transcend narrative of their story will rise above to be heard and revered by those who resonate with the core values, archetype and mythic themes of the brand story. From Homer’s epics, the stories of King Arthur’s Roundtable to the Star Wars films, mythology has always been at the core of transcendent stories. Marketers who recognize the mythological story patterns in their brands will have tremendous competitive advantage in the marketplace over the status quo.

Apple’s “think different” story line was a classic example of a brand story born from the “rebel” archetype of the persona of its founder and visionary. Regardless of the specific product being marketed, this outlier storyline was both implicit and explicit in the actions and behaviors of stakeholders and customers alike.

From the very beginning, Steve Jobs was an extraordinary storyteller who recognized the power of mythological themes as a guiding principal for product development and marketing. From Apple’s first computer to the iPad, this was not a convenient fiction of advertising concocted to sell more products! Yet, Apple’s sales success is the stuff of mythic legend. The values and truth of the Apple brand (or any brand) is found in its unique mythic story.

Brands that lose their way, loose their connection to their sacred story first.

Sears is a lost brand. It has lost any connection to the mythic storyline that made it great. Sure one can make a compelling case about how the world of retail has changed, and operationally Sears has not been able to perform effectively in the new competitive environment, but that argument is a symptom of a previous cause.

The leadership at Sears valued short term profit over innovation in a changing environment. Forsaking the transcendent value of their brand’s story to guide critical decisions in a changing, ultra fast world, Sears relinquished its position of greatness to Amazon. Lost brands in every category lose their sacred connection to their story and consequently wander into the abyss. Hewlett Packard may soon suffer a similar fate.

If you’re managing a brand that is underperforming, ask yourself if the leadership of your organization are the first champions and trust holders of your brands mythic story, and if the story still provides the guidance and illumination to keep the tribe connected to its transcendent meaning and behaving in a way that supports the truth of why the brand matters.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew B. August 17, 2012 at 4:57 pm

“Iconic brands like Apple, Starbucks, Harley Davidson, Patagonia, and Herman Miller have at the core of their DNA a mythic storyline that inspires the actions, beliefs and behaviors of its devoted tribe members over the long term.”

The trick is (and it’s damn-near impossible) to come up with a storyline that’s timeless and never gets old. THAT’S the ultimate challenge.

The problem is simple: stories come to an end.

Is it really the case where a brand (and its mythical storyline) is indefinitely sustainable, or is it more like a play that opens, has its run, and finally closes?

One could argue that that apex of the brand equity curve has been reached by all of the companies mentioned in your post. Sears’ came decades ago; Starbucks doesn’t have nearly the weight it once did. Apple’s brand equity may have peaked on the very day Steve Jobs died.

So while we might not think of Apple as a brand in decline (yet), how does Apple’s “mythic story” evolve to invite new members into the tribe? Is it even possible? Can they stay on the forefront of their brand position (insanely great paradigm-shifting technology with simplified UI’s)? Probably not. The brand story can be promoted and retold again and again, but at some point, it requires that they deliver. Again. And again. And again.

Is Sears’ fate ultimately the same as Apple’s? I’d argue it’s far more likely than not.

A particularly fascinating example is Harley Davidson. Their core (and truly authentic) market left a long time ago. Their existing base, while still large, is aging and younger potential customers generally want nothing to do with Harley. That mythical storyline (of rebellious bad-ass freedom) just doesn’t play anymore — at least not to younger audiences. And in some ways, the very people who bought into the brand story and promise were the same ones who unknowingly killed it. Middle-class, overweight, old middle-managers may certainly embrace their own inner bad-asses, but it’s a tough sell to the next generation.

Without a doubt, HD has done a remarkably great job of getting an audience to adopt its brand and “lifestyle,” but it’s in a heap of trouble because the story doesn’t resonate anymore. It’s sort of like “Cats” on Broadway: Once a cult hit, then acclaimed, then unbelievably hot, then huge, then in decline, then essentially dead.

Even with an incredible story, how many times can you watch the same movie?

Very thought-provoking post. Thank you!

Thomson Dawson August 18, 2012 at 7:32 am

Andrew-thank you for the great comment. Indeed there is a lifespan to a relevant brand story. When you get right down to it, everything has its day in the sun including brands. Of course I still believe that Apple is still centered around its mythic brand story and everyday there are new members of the tribe who flock to Apple for insanely great products.

Thanks for taking the time to check out the opost and leave your comment for us.

Glenn Hansen May 8, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Andrew’s statement that “stories come to end” is only true for those brands that let their stories come to end. As long as there is a company delivering a product or service, there is a story. The problem as I see it is marketers make story-telling too difficult, imposing unrealistic – and unnecessary – challenges and making this communication competitive. We can’t all have a story like Steve Jobs or Apple, or a great American story like Harley-Davidson.

Just be honest, open, and informative. Tell your story because it’s your story. It won’t end if you don’t let it end.

Leave a Comment