It’s a concept that’s becoming more prevalent and more important in marketing. It’s no longer enough to have a clever, catchy advertisement and maybe a well-designed website – you need to tell your “brand story”. That’s all good and well, but what exactly is a brand story or narrative, how do you tell it, and how does it help your marketing anyway?
Let’s start with what a brand narrative isn’t. It isn’t the “about” section on your website, nor is it the clever made-up tale in your best YouTube video. It isn’t a few elements that tell a neat story with a beginning, middle and end that can be copied and pasted into a section of all your marketing collateral.
Rather, a brand story is more like a living, current biography that is continuously told, retold, added to and expanded on. It is the sum of the face you present to the world, the history, background and inner workings of the company, the corporate identity you develop, the style of language you use, the way you interact on social media, and much, much more.
Brand is not a product, that's for sure; it's not one item. It's an idea, it's a theory, it's a meaning, it's how you carry yourself. It's aspirational, it's inspirational. - Kevin Plank
Let’s imagine your brand as a person. To find out about that person, we would ask several questions – how old are they, where did they go to school, who was their first best friend, teacher, crush? Do they enjoy physical or cerebral recreation, or both? Where do they come from, where do they work? And these are just surface questions, back-story. As we get to know the person, we discover all their quirks of personality, their preferences, their opinions, beliefs and reasons for getting out of bed in the morning. We get to know what makes them tick and we can make the choice whether to let this person be part of our lives or not.
Creating your brand narrative
To write your brand’s story, you first need to know what it is, and this isn’t something that can be quickly made up by the marketing team and presented on a couple of PowerPoint slides. Whether you’ve ever thought about it or not, your story already exists, and you need to find out what it is, whether it works, and how it needs to change – if at all. It’s going to be made up of your existing marketing and advertising, the daily experiences of your employees at all levels, your customers’ experiences and interactions with your company. It’s going to include your values, culture, products and services.
You will need to spend time getting to know your own company – or getting a competent researcher to do it for you – and then decide whether the existing story is the one you want people to know, or is one that needs rewriting. It can be pretty daunting if you realize the story you’re currently telling is not a good one. It could be disjointed and inconsistent; it could be a story you never wanted to tell, that puts your company in a negative light; it could be just plain boring. Or, of course, it could be a good story that just isn’t being communicated very well just yet, that needs an interesting, effective way to be told and get your message across.
If your story needs to change, it’s going to take a lot of work, yes, but that, again, becomes part of your brand narrative. Tell the story of how you’re changing, what you’re doing to shake things up, improve life for your employees and customers, get the right set of values implemented. Don’t just redesign your logo and website and hope for the best. Take inspiration from (but don’t copy!) the storytelling techniques that are being used by other brands, both in your industry and outside of it.
To tell your story effectively, you have to be consistent in your approach and make sure you’re speaking with one voice. That means guidelines for your social media, design and language styles for every bit of communication you produce, both internally and externally, and, most importantly, making sure that what you’re saying matches up with what you’re doing. It’s no good going around telling everyone you take pride in your service when your company Facebook page is riddled with complaints about it, or punting your amazing low prices when your staff are very publicly protesting their poor wages.
A brand story isn’t about making up a story, it’s about telling a true one that your current and potential customers will believe and buy into.
Using your story in marketing and advertising
There are a number of companies in various industries who use their brand story really well, like Converse with their Made by You campaign, which seamlessly weaves the customer story into the company story. The trick, however, is to make sure you’re not hammering home the “this is our story” message with every communication – that’s not really the point. The brand narrative is less of a selling tool, and more of an instrument of choice; you want to be the story that customers choose to be part of.
So how do you use it? There’s no one quick answer, except to say that your marketing should be part of the story, rather than simply the medium in which you tell it. Sounds confusing? Let’s break it down:
The brand narrative encompasses your whole company – what you do, how you react to feedback, bad press, positive publicity, incidents and accidents, how you treat and interact with both customers and employees, what products or services you sell and how you market them.
Your marketing, being part of that narrative, is just one of the ways you get the story across. If the company history, products and people are the skin and bones of your story, your marketing is the meat. This is where you get to show off your personality, values, ethics.
Is your company staffed by young, enthusiastic, creative people? Your marketing should reflect that with a fun, quirky look. Or are all your employees older, more settled people who have been with you for years, nose to the grindstone? Show that off by talking about commitment, loyalty, a lifetime of excellence.
The brand story and direct marketing
There’s a bit of disagreement in the marketing world whether brand narrative or direct marketing is more important. After all, they seemingly have two different goals – brand story’s goal is to create an overall awareness of the company, while direct marketing is there to generate tangible return. I don’t actually believe this is an issue; the two can not only coexist, but be part of a harmonious whole.
Like I said before, it’s about establishing what your voice is, what you have to say, and how you’re going to say it. Your story is not just a way of telling who you are, it’s a way of making a promise to customers, letting them know what to expect, and then delivering on that promise, that contract.
No matter what trends have come and gone, storytelling has always been part of direct marketing’s success. I’ve spoken before about personalization, about making your brand’s personality real to your customer, and this is part of your brand narrative. Direct marketing gives you one of the best opportunities you’ll have to tell your story. Now I’m not saying, send them a novel; I am saying you can find ways of weaving your story into your DM.
Instead of just sending a “act now, buy quick” type of direct mailer, rather tell your audience part of your story that is relevant to your campaign; engage them with an interesting tale they can get personally invested in for a short while. When they take up your offer, send them a lovely hand-written note as your ever-important follow-up, thanking them, telling them the next part of the story – why it’s so great that they took part, bought in or signed up. Make them part of the story, and in so doing, you will find you can build your brand, expand your narrative and put a little more meat on those bones.