Brand Storytelling: Behind the Buzz

Brand Storytelling: Behind the Buzz

If you’ve visited any branding blog or website in the past few years, you will have read claims touting the importance of so-called “brand storytelling.” Like any useful buzzword, “brand storytelling” restates a truth that smart marketers have known forever—your brand is nothing without a good story. For simplification’s sake, River + Wolf considers a brand story an artful organization of information that transforms abstract attributes and ideas into vibrant life.

What kind of story do you want to tell?

While there are many ways to spin a brand tale, two well-known story types are origin stories and customer stories. The king of brand origin stories is probably Apple. Although the tech giant no longer relies on its halcyon garage days for its brand awareness, this scrappy story still informs how customers think about the company. Forty years later, the garage-as-incubator has been riffed on by too many brands to count – Google among them.

For a more recent example of an origin story, there is Just Water, the eco-friendly, boxed water company started by Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. Made of a laminated cardboard material, the boxes of water offer a sustainable alternative to plastic water bottles.

At first, the Smiths maintained a low profile regarding their involvement in the company. It soon became clear, however, that the eco-friendly angle wasn’t engaging enough to the stakeholders. Being green—these days, anyway—isn’t a way to stand out from the crowd. The Smiths’ involvement gave the brand storytelling a fresh perspective that consumers needed.

Another great example of brand storytelling through customer stories can be seen with Airbnb. With stories of hosts and guests from all around the world, Airbnb has plenty of material to choose from—as immense an opportunity as it is a challenge. We dare you not to get hooked on their stories page.

GoPro also uses customer experience to bring their brand to life. To keep the stories consistent, all play to their slogan: “This is your life. Be the hero. Capture and share your world”. Capitalizing on the human love of sharing images, GoPro has built an incredible global following though the use of customer created videos.

But whatever kind of story you choose to tell—origin, customer, or other—you will want to keep three principles uppermost in mind.

Reach out and touch someone

Product descriptions and unique selling propositions don’t make for the most riveting stories. So it’s not surprise that many marketers put emotion front and center—something Extra gum does very well. As someone who can’t count the number of times growing up that my mom offered me a piece of gum, Extra’s “Origami” spot, with its potent blend of love and memory, hit home. Their follow-up, “Sarah and Juan” tugs heartstrings too with it unwrapping of a love story set to the classic pop ballad “Can’t Help Falling in Love”.

Tincup, a small American whiskey brand, created an emotionally rich brand story in their “Up Here” ad campaign about the wild and brotherly delights of climbing a mountain—an idea furthered in their “geocaching” campaign. In both cases, the whiskey brand succeeded in blending whiskey drinking with brotherly bonding and exploration of the great outdoors.

Bring your customers along for the ride

Some brands focus their storytelling efforts not on the past or present, but on the future. Although Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk is notorious for dismissing advertising and marketing –an arguably canny marketing move in and of itself—Tesla’s story as a brand has always been about looking forward.

Following the successful production of the Roadster, the company’s electric sports car, in 2008, Musk focused his attention not on that product, but rather on how that vehicle contributed to his longer-term vision of developing a high-quality and affordable electric vehicle. Those who bought a Roadster or the Model S felt they weren’t just buying a car, but were active participants in the Tesla vision.

Focus on a single theme

Stories with too many themes can lead to confuse. That’s why we suggest one core theme per story. This is achieved to great effect with Under Amour’s fantastic “I Will What I Want” campaign. In its quest to rebrand as clothing that empowers females, their spots feature ballerina Misty Copeland, Olympic skier Lindsay Vonn, tennis player Sloane Stevens, and soccer player, Kelly O’Hara. Each spot plays to the theme of inner fortitude—a kind of emotional armor. These stories are especially successful as they complement the company’s name.

Since time immemorial, “once upon a time” has not only enthralled people of every age and background, but it has brought people together. And while the fireside tales of yore may now be a glowing screen, brand stories—like all stories—have the power to transform random customers into a vibrant community.

Taylor Coe is a language-loving online marketer whose expertise includes content development, social media marketing, and SEO/SEM for organizations such as the Oxford University Press. His work has appeared in various online publications, among them the OUPblog, Popmatters, and Slate. Taylor received a B.A. in literature from Hamilton College with additional studies at the University of Edinburgh and Columbia University.