Brand storytelling, we’re told, is one of the key challenges and opportunities for marketers. When you consider that people think, recall and express themselves in terms of stories, it’s no surprise that storytelling is a hot topic.
But in order to be a more effective at storytelling in general, and brand storytelling in particular, it might be worth our while to take a step back and explore what we mean by a story in the first place. After all, a great deal of marketing and corporate communications don’t seem to conform exactly to the way we commonly understand the term.
A Lot Of Brand Storytelling Doesn’t Seem Like “Storytelling” At All
We tend to think of stories as things that begin with “once upon a time,” present us Good Guys and Bad Guys, take us on a journey which is resolved, and have (if we’re lucky) a happy ending.
But how does a Powerpoint presentation fit into this scheme? Or a television spot promoting a particular product benefit? Or a marketing campaign that aims to associate your brand with a certain set of images and feelings?
And how about photography or graphic design? People in these fields often say their aim is to tell a story. What are they talking about? Are any of these things stories in the way the word is normally understood?
I argue that they are stories indeed, and when effective, they share many of the characteristics of stories as we normally think of them.
So before we address the issue of brand storytelling itself, let’s get to the basic principles of storytelling, whether it’s a novel, an essay, a photo, a corporate film or a market research presentation.
Successful storytelling, in any medium, will incorporate one or all of the following tenets, which to a certain degree overlap.
Principles of Storytelling
At its most basic a story is a sequence of events that moves forward. Stories have a momentum and a trajectory. That might sound obvious, but it’s not easy to achieve. A considerable amount of skill is needed to get a reader to want to turn the page, or a viewer to sit at the edge of his or her seat waiting to learn what’s going to happen next. I’m sure all of you have had the unpleasant experience of enduring a poorly constructed story. Stories like these seem to get bogged down, or “go nowhere.” They’re boring.
What keeps a story moving forward, and therefore keeps us engaged, is conflict. A protagonist or hero wants to achieve something: get the girl, or find the money or escape from harm. The storyteller puts obstacles in the way. If the protagonist gets what she wants, we enjoy a happy ending. If not, a sad one. Along this journey to towards the goal, the character learns something important, and we learn something along with him or her.
Stories revolve around a central unifying idea, a principle that goes back to Aristotle. A choice has been made by the writer or photographer or designer to focus on one thing at the expense of all others. Every element of the story points to this central decision and supports it. The success of the story depends on how efficiently it drives home this main message.
Now, let’s see how these principles apply to some of the problematic examples mentioned earlier.
Storytelling In Media We Might Not Consider Stories
If we’re talking about photography, successful photos indeed move forward through time. By that I mean your eye will be directed by the composition of the picture to move through the frame in a certain way. Moreover, great photos give us the sense of the action that happened (or might have happened) before or after the moment when the shot was snapped.
The best Powerpoint presentations and corporate films also display essential storytelling principles. They might not have characters in conflict, but they do create dramatic tension by setting up problem and resolving it. Sometimes there’s an “implied enemy.” It could be an outmoded procedure or a methodological challenge or false starts along the way to discovering an optimal solution. In all cases, there’s some kind of obstacle that needs to be overcome, and the story moves forward by taking us on the journey of how that happened.
But perhaps the most important principle in evidence in all successful stories, in any medium, is the idea of unity. The best stories know exactly what they’re about, and just as important, what they’re not about. They’re focused. A graphic designer, for example, will choose one color palette to the exclusion of all others, a composition that points your eye in a very specific way. A photographer will choose a clear and unambiguous subject. A song or symphony will have a melody or “hook.” An author will understand that his is a love story and not a political thriller. A lawyer will have a central thesis of the case. A journalist will take great pains to decide upon just the right headline that provides the context for everything that follows.
This idea of unity is especially important in brand storytelling. It informs brands on both the micro and macro levels. Looking at the micro level, every single piece of marketing material needs to abide by storytelling principles in order to be both engaging and comprehensible. But even more challenging is brand storytelling on the macro level, in which a central theme needs to weave through all of the marketing materials, in every channel, to add up to a Big Idea that holds the brand together.
In further posts I’ll provide examples to make a the principles set forth here even more concrete and tangible.
But for now, if you simply keep these principles in mind, and look for them when you’re reading, watching or listening to stories you really like. You’ll start to get an idea as to how you might put them into practice when constructing and telling your own tales.