Writing Compelling Brand Stories

Brace Pullquote

Most organizations adhere to an outdated marketing platform of “generating transactions that sell goods and services.” While this transactional approach has successfully created multibillion dollar companies, it is not sufficient to move them into a successful future.

Here is a question all companies must ask: Can we continue creating enough new transactions to generate sustainable growth using the same marketing methods that got us to where we are today? When we put that question to clients the answer is always no. Senior marketing leaders from all over the world tell us how their strategies and plans deliver minor share gains only to see those gains shift back to their competitors two or three quarters later.

Companies must evolve the role of their marketing function from “generating transactions” to “building emotional relationships that lead to the sale of goods and services.” Brands and retailers have a choice to make: be meaningful and play a significant ongoing role in people’s lives, or remain transactional, only thought of when needed.

Starting today, the only unshakeable advantage is to build an emotional relationship with your consumers that is so strong, competitors can’t disrupt it. It is this type of emotional loyalty that gives your brand a sustainable competitive advantage. And there is plenty of in-market quantifiable proof that brands bringing emotional meaning to people’s lives outperform their competitors.

Whether you are a brand or a retailer, emotion is the new currency to get consumers to consume, and shoppers to buy. Today, marketers use actual currency in the form of price promotion, but this is costing too much and is no longer sustainable. If emotion is indeed the new currency, then stories are the critical new delivery system. If you want your brand to be a contending force in 10 years, you must write your brand story today, or you will be writing its obituary later. The million dollar question is — how do you create your brand story?

The Science of Storytelling

To understand the science behind stories you must first understand the science behind a consumer’s and shopper’s thought process. Marketers are operating under the fallacy that a person’s thought process is based on a collection of facts that are analyzed rationally and logically. In reality, the social sciences have taught us that the human thought process is based on a collection of stories first experienced emotionally, then rationally.

Story is the fundamental instrument of thought. Whenever someone asks you a question, such as “What did you watch on TV last Tuesday night?” your nonconscious brain recalls the information in the form of a story. It is your conscious brain that pulls out the fact, “I watched Big Bang Theory,” stripping it from the story.

Humans remember through stories. This is not something we just happen to do, it is something we virtually have to do if we want to remember anything. This is a simple human truth that is not being applied to how brands develop communications.

The Art of Storytelling

To craft a great brand story there are three key things marketers must understand:

  1. There is a difference between a “brand story” and
    “the story of the brand.”
  2. You must draw a distinction between an emotional territory and the emotional truths within that territory.
  3. There are three key elements to a strong brand story.


Brand Story vs. The Story of the Brand

Whenever we ask a client to share their brand story, we most often hear something like this: In 1925, Mrs. Margaret Moses baked her first batch of oatmeal raisin cookies. The neighborhood kids loved them and in a short while she was selling them at the local bakery. They became so deliciously popular she started her own company, Grandma Moses’ Home Baked Cookies. We continue to nurture that heritage today by using only the highest quality natural ingredients for the best homemade taste. They’re so good, you can taste the love in each bite.

This is a great example of the story of the brand, but it is not the brand story. The brand story and the story of the brand are not the same thing. Lack of clarity about this distinction is why the concept of storytelling has struggled to be optimized in marketing.

The key elements of the story of the brand are the brand’s history and the role it plays today. Making this your brand story is akin to a friend only talking about himself, expecting you to be interested every time he opens his self-centered mouth.

Let’s face it, how many times will a consumer pay attention to a brand’s backstory? What people love to hear over and over again are stories about themselves, stories that reflect who they are and what they believe emotionally. The key elements of a brand story are the emotional truths shared between the brand and its consumers and shoppers, reflected in every brand interaction and touchpoint. This is the story a brand needs to tell.

Emotional Territory and Emotional Truths

Marketers also must be clear on the distinction between an emotional territory and the emotional truths within that territory.

  • Emotional Territory: Sits at the category level, so it can be leveraged by multiple brands (e.g. beer and the emotional territory of socialization).
  • Emotional Truths: The beliefs and attitudes adopted by a brand to give it a differentiated voice within the territory (e.g. Dos Equis adopting “being interesting” to differentiate itself within socialization).

A great metaphor for this is a table. The top of the table is the emotional territory and the floor is your target. The legs of the table are the emotional truths that ground your emotional territory in the lives of your consumers and shoppers in a way that is unique to your brand. Without the emotional truths, you are just setting an emotional territory on top of your target, not grounding it in their lives.

Key Elements of a Strong Brand Story

A brand story that will grow your business consists of three key elements:

  1. The emotional territory (or territories) most relevant to your category and brand.
  2. The emotional truths within the territories that the brand will own.
  3. Clarity on how the brand’s benefit and attributes deliver those truths.

You must have all three to ensure your territories and truths fit seamlessly with your benefit and attributes. What a lot of brands are doing today is what we call “emotional-layering” — finding a social cause or emotional territory and layering it on top of the brand.

Let me give you a clear visual for this. Hold out your
left hand, palm up; now place your right palm on top of
your left and slide them back and forth. This is emotional-layering.

The danger of emotional-layering is that it often seems forced and inauthentic with the brand. Today’s savvy consumers and shoppers will sense this and potentially be turned off by it.

Now interlock your fingers, this represents the above three elements being seamlessly linked. This is what makes for a brand story that is authentic, motivating and unique to a brand.

Implications For Activation

Once you have created your brand story, there are three things to keep in mind when it comes to telling that story. First, you are telling the story to drive sales, not to strengthen your equity or to just raise brand awareness. If your story doesn’t grow your business then the story is irrelevant.

Second, you do not need to tell every aspect of your brand story through every interaction and touchpoint. Which aspects you tell must be determined by your business strategy.

If your growth strategy is to get new consumers and shoppers, then only certain aspects of your story are relevant. But if your strategy is to get people to use you more often (i.e. occasion based strategy), then you might very well select different aspects.

And lastly, there is a misconception that storytelling is only relevant to content and promotions intended for social sharing. Brands are creating mini-movies and consumer promotions that have a great deal of emotional power
while their TV and print ads focus on brand benefits and attributes.

If you have selected the story you must tell based on your growth strategy, then that story can be told just as effectively in a 30 second TV ad and a one-page print ad as through a three-minute YouTube video.

Marketers are now realizing their brands need to offer something more than a benefit and set of attributes. Brands must go beyond meeting a need, they must create an emotional want.

While it is the need for chocolate that brings me to the candy aisle (online or brick-and-mortar), when faced with a myriad of options, it is an emotional want that will drive brand choice.

If no brands have created this want, then the decision will be based on the lowest common denominators, past experience and price. The most effective way to create an emotional want is to tell a story that reflects the emotional life and beliefs of your consumers and shoppers. C&ST

Contributor Info

Christopher Brace is CEO of Syntegrate Consulting, a research-based, marketing strategy firm focused on helping brands uncover new growth potential by evolving beyond consumers’ rational needs to contributing emotional
meaning to people’s lives.