As humans, storytelling is our speciality – and what sets us apart from other animals. We have the unique ability not only to communicate about reality, but to create completely new realities. Without these commonly accepted narratives about things like money, nations or corporations, our complex society could not function. It forms the basis for everything we do as a species. And importantly to us, it also forms the basis of all great advertising.
To create a compelling brand story, the first question a company must ask themselves is “who are we?” After all, what a brand is selling is not really the jeans or the phone. It’s something far more elusive and important: a sense of belonging, a vision of life, qualities of mind and character. Therefore, a company without a philosophy and values has nothing for consumers to buy into. So, what makes a successful brand story?
Most brands set out to solve a problem. And what are the universal structural elements of all stories? A problem, a build, and a solution. That’s a novel, that’s a film, that’s a joke – that’s also a very effective brand story. Another trait is disruption. Disruption is something that has existed in every industry, all around the world for centuries. Every time someone experiments with a new idea, and that concept earns the attention and respect of an audience, a “disruptive brand” is born. And even if a brand becomes established, it needn’t lose its disruptive underdog status. Many brands also incorporate an element of social good into their ethos – be that giving back to communities, saving the environment, or helping consumers find their best selves.
The most successful brand stories incorporate all these elements. Take Under Armour, the little performance apparel company that solved a big problem – keeping athletes cool, dry and light throughout the course of a game, practice or workout. Their 2016 “I Will What I Want” campaign features super model Gisele Bündchen training hard, without makeup, as social media messages flash up with opinions about who she should be. She, like a true disruptor, defies it all to confidently experience a more fulfilling life, breaking away from all clichés.
No discussion of brand storytelling is complete without a look at Airbnb. The travel company had a novel and pioneering idea to sell their vision to consumers. It was simple yet effective: have their consumers tell their story for them. By positioning the customer at the centre of the brand, the customer becomes the brand. This is a good strategy for any business, but especially one such as Airbnb where the customer is the product. They use spectacular imagery and short films to offer a snapshot into the lives of Airbnb hosts to support their slogan ‘belong anywhere’.
Another brand to master storytelling is Apple. So much of Apple’s success lies in its simplicity. Steve Jobs’ philosophy – whether he was coding or marketing – was to distil an idea into its simplest form. And what simpler way to communicate a message than by telling a story. And in Jobs, Apple had one of the great storytellers. Take his launch of the iPhone. He simultaneously builds suspense and the brand, hooking the audience first and introducing the product second. This is a tradition that’s continued with the marketing of each new product – and it’s one of the main reasons people queue round the block for the latest release time and time again.
It’s clear marketing and storytelling are a match-made in heaven: there’s no better way to connect, engage and reach your customers, whichever industry you’re in. Specifically, the most successful brands are those who put real people at the centre of their story – building a community other customers can’t help but want to be a part of.