When people think about a brand, they too often imagine only the visible concepts like logos, colors, symbols, or even “a cartoon mouse,” or “fast and cool electric vehicles” or “smooth white plastic computers.” But these are merely brand artifacts: either the clothes that the brand wears or the product that the brand sells. The actual brand is a story. A story about where these things came from, who makes them, who they’re for, and most importantly, why they exist.
Break down the story
Stories are tools for making meaning, and are invaluable for assisting in our understanding of the world. We can see with our eyes what a thing is. We can understand how it might be used, or its value in our world, whether that’s entertainment or utility. But it’s the story that elevates these ideas, products, or experiences and helps us make sense of why they exist.
The story can take many forms, but like many stories, it places protagonists and antagonists in a world, reveals who they are and where they come from, and describes their struggles and triumphs. We root for the characters to overcome their obstacles or emerge on top, and we understand the stakes if they don’t succeed.
Build a world
The “world” we define is our setting and market. Is this a utopian vision of the future where there’s an electric SUV in every driveway? Or are we talking about a dystopia where people have forgotten how to connect without screens? Are we transporting people to a place where they’re next-level athletes or gourmet home chefs? We establish this backdrop, and curate it as the setting for the brand.
Cast a protagonist
The protagonist could be our founder, a visionary, or even a process. It could be the visible members of the company, as with UPS, where we root for each driver and truck or plane. Or Amazon, where the website itself is pretty much the main character. Freeman Dyson was their founder, but the protagonist in Dyson’s story is science and physics itself.
Square off against an antagonist
An antagonist could be an incumbent industry, as with Tesla vs internal combustion. It could even be a benign concept, like grass stains. But we need something in this spot to define our protagonist and put their journey in context. The antagonist must be overcome.
Establish the stakes
The stakes define why we should care. If AmEx doesn’t succeed, your small businesses will fail (according to them). If OkCupid doesn’t succeed, you’ll be alone forever (sorry). It’s important to establish some kind of stakes, to highlight the value of the good or service as well as provide urgency in the mind of the audience.
Bring it to life
This narrative brand framework can help you focus on distilling your brand into an easily understandable story that can then be expressed in a number of different ways. The expression, as in the website, the visual identity, the digital product, or whatever, is where the story is told.
For most of our audience, they’ll encounter expressions of our brand first, and work back to the main story. They’ll see a march organized by Moms Demand Action, and wonder what’s going on (What do they want? Who are these moms?). They may wonder how they can be involved (How do I join?). Or they’ll see the Tito’s Vodka bottle on the shelf and be intrigued by the package (a signifier of handmade aesthetic). They’ll read it on the menu and wonder what the deal is (who is Tito?). They’ll taste it in a drink and like it.
The verbal brand
The story can be told in a linear way, as a quick synopsis used to explain what we do. We should have this message handy, as it’s going to be most of our verbal brand. For example: Shannon Watts founded Moms Demand Action to end gun violence in America. Tito Beveridge founded Tito’s Handmade Vodka to bring craft spirits back.
We’ll want longer versions of this for different scenarios or use cases, for written or spoken situations, and for different audiences. A lot goes into the verbal brand, from the tone of voice and attitude to word choice. All of these are signals that help people understand your point of view.
The visual brand
As we design the expressions of the brand, we want to keep the story in mind and make sure that each touchpoint supports an aspect of the story. In designing the Tito’s brand language, we channeled the passion through the colors and direct language. We channeled the attitude with playful graphics, voices headlines and weird, quirky animations. We channeled the obsession with quality through rich pages with detailed art direction and smooth interactions.
The community brand
Another expression that we have somewhat less (but not zero!) control over is the community of our brand. Who are our friends? Who are our fans? What do they say about us and where do they say it? We can direct the community in subtle ways by encouraging its growth, and taking the lead with our values and tone, and arming them with a good story. A strong community of fans coalesces around a good story.
These decisions are different for each brand, and what works for one might be disaster for another. If the story is about being handmade and the brand shows up looking too slick or lacking all personality, it’s going to hit a dissonant chord.
Use the story
The goal behind any brand story and expression is to get people to understand us and our worldview, to appreciate us, and to take action on our behalf. Let’s break it down:
Understanding is table stakes. If people don’t understand what we do, we’re going to have a really hard time doing anything else. This is also where we deliver the worldview: why do we do this? What motivates us?
Appreciation is created when our message is appealing to our audience. Our audience now understands who we are, where we come from and what we do. And if they appreciate us, it’s because they’re glad we do what we do. They have affinity for us, and want us to succeed. In the story metaphor, this is when the audience connects to and sympathizes with the protagonist, and cares if they succeed., and the audience cares whether they succeed or not. Not everyone may take action on our behalf, but if they appreciate us, it’s a big win.
Taking action on our behalf is the ultimate goal. This could be purchasing our product, voting for our candidacy, accepting funding from us, or applying for a job at our company. By creating a firm understanding in the audience and helping them appreciate our worldview, we increase the chances that they’ll take action on our behalf.
Branding is hard
Brands are complex systems, with millions of variables, only a portion of which are under our direct control. And even then, we can’t make people understand us, or even like us – much less buy our product or sign up for our event. But thinking about our brand as a story vastly simplifies the process of creating a compelling connection.
There’s a reason stories endure: because people are wired to love them. It’s science. Stories deliver way more than information;they help people make sense of the information, assign meaning, feel empathy for the characters, and truly connect with the characters and each other. The goal of investing in our brand is to create connections with your audience, and there’s no better way than to tell a great story.