Beginning, middle, sell: brand storytelling

“What’s the story?” That’s the first question a producer asks when you pitch a movie. Now brands are following suit. They want to tell tales too. Brand story books, story-led campaigns... strong narratives for brochures. So, how do we deliver a story experience?

Gather round the fire Let’s get the obvious out the way first. A story is anything that has a beginning, middle and end. Through the ages, every society has told them. In fact, the need for stories seems hard-wired into the human mind.

This may be because they’re an unbeatable way of conveying insight. Hooked by the need to know what happens next, people will always stick with a good story until the end. In doing so, they’ll learn a little about what it is to be human through the choices the characters make and the consequences these bring.

Start at the beginning That’s fictional storytelling. But what about spinning an effective brand yarn? Well, if you can find a human dimension to the brand’s progress, use it. The founder’s story is a sure-fire way of conveying the essence of a brand authentically. However, most brands don’t want to make their heritage such a big part of their positioning. This means looking elsewhere...

…like the consumer’s story. Volvo used to run ads featuring customers who’d clocked up hundreds of thousands of miles in their trustworthy cars. Each story was unique, evocative and felt real. It was a great way of supporting their ‘well-built and safe’ positioning.

BMW obviously took note. Years later, they were telling stories as the BMW Mini was launched with a campaign that told a mini-story (get it?) in each ad. Capturing the fun of the brand, it also worked a treat. (Notice how flexible stories are: you can use them to convey pretty much any message.)

Get creative Of course, not every company has an obvious founder or customer story to tell. You may need to make stories up. In the US, IKEA puts out its own TV comedy series, Easy to Assemble. Nearer to home, Carling created a mini-series of comedy sketches utilising its ‘mates' campaign around four years ago. We’ve just written a book-length story for a bank to explain supervision.

Why aren't even more brands telling them? When you consider the human connection of a good story, the emotion it generates and the influence it has on the audience, it’s rather amazing that even more brands don’t make greater use of them.

I think it's because stories require too much self restraint. You have to put the story first and trust the audience to feel the message. That's probably not explicit enough for most brands.

But, if you’re one of the brands still missing out, here are three elements you need to include to make your story a winner:

1. Have a beginning (or headline) which raises a question in the mind of the audience

2. If you’ve got a character, put them, or something they value, in jeopardy

3. Keep curiosity alive by raising other, bigger questions, as you answer the earlier ones

4. Finish with the questions answered and the issue resolved.

And finally, here’s some further reading about using stories in organisations. Don't say we're not good to you!

Annette Simmons, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Find, Develop, and Deliver Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact.

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Barnaby Benson Copywriting Agency, UK

Barnaby Benson Ltd is a leading UK copywriting agency. Based in London, we provide copywriting services for many agencies and brands. We offer a wide range of writing services with a strong reputation for tone of voice.  Want to find the right words to make your point? Get in touch with us: we can help.

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