Hey brands: forget your message, what’s your STORY?

Ancient storytelling secret: characters are more interesting

Beg to Differ was reminded by this cartoon from the wise and funny Tom Fishbourne, health that all great stories are driven by compelling characters – and that’s as true in the branding world as it was around the ancestral campfire. So is your brand a hero, medications a helper, or a Jack of all Trades?

Read Tom’s blog on the cartoon here.

Quick plug: if you’re interested in branding at all, subscribe to Tom’s blog. He not only packs amazing insights into the cartoons, but then blogs about the topic with wit and clarity. You will never be disappointed.

A few thoughts on storytelling and metaphor in branding:

Archetypes – they’re not just for English class anymore

The idea of building your brand around one of the strong, powerful figures that recur throughout world literature might seem like a stretch, but as Tom points out, the greatest brands can be clearly identified with those figures – like Nike as the hero brand / Harley Davidson as the Outlaw / Patagonia as the Adventurer, etc.

And I don’t just say that to justify my outrageously expensive English degree (but it helps). When you translate these into brand elements and a tone of voice, they SOUND more natural. So the heroic statement “Just Do It” is intuitively more compelling than “Maximize your Performance” – even though both mean much the same on the surface.

Going deep into the human psyche can feel dangerous. But that's why it's so powerful.

Better the wrong character than no character at all:

In counseling companies on new directions for their brands, I always have to present tangible metaphors to help them “get” the direction I’m suggesting. And these almost always take the form of a character – or occasionally a creature. I’ve used a veteran soldier, a wise sage, a master craftsman, a banker / money changer, and a dangerous deep sea monster (see graphic at right), among others.

Those will also happen to sound familiar to anyone who reads any kind of literature, since you’ll find the same figures in everything from Homer to the Bible to James Joyce.

Be the leviathan: it feels dangerous, but it works:

When designer John Kaldeway presented the cartoon graphic of the monstrous angler-fish above to our client as the symbol for their data recovery company – which I had named “DeepSpar” – we were all a bit shocked.  In the board room it seemed just a bit… too much.

But the image, and more importantly the attitude it embodied (ruthless, driven, even a bit predatory) turned out to be exactly the right approach to differentiate DeepSpar in a very small market dominated by very technical, geeky products and customers who were men (and gamers) that saw the symbol as a bad-ass reinterpretation of their own struggles.

Suddenly, our client was both much more memorable and consistent, and they were also coolest vendor at the trade show. Hard to give away a hat with XRP-7000 on it.

Branding is not about “messages”; it’s about character.

This point is driven home in this great blog post from 2008 by Olivier Blanchard (@TheBrandBuilder) – which Tom also links to.  Olivier argues for using archetypes as a way of breaking out of the usual heady, analytical way of thinking about branding – which is most obvious in the “messaging” process – and instead using powerful metaphors to touch the customer in a deeper way

I’ll finish with a quote from him:

If the brand you create is powerful enough – inside and out – then messaging is barely frosting on the cake. Heck, it’s little more than the colored sprinkles on the edges. The messaging is nice and it dresses things up a little, but… Using archetypes in your brand development process can help you tap into the raw nature and identity of a brand better than any brand pyramid, onion, pie chart or whatever cookie-cutter technique you are currently using.

I’d love to hear your stories – maybe examples of brands using strong metaphors, or archetypes that pop to mind when you think of certain brands. Comment away.

3 thoughts on “Hey brands: forget your message, what’s your STORY?”

  1. Great post which reminded me of a post I hadn’t yet finished on The Job Shopper about the power of stories for job seekers. I conducted a seminar last weekend with about forty executive level job seekers and spoke about the power of their stories to differentiate themselves from the other dozen candidates that were interviewing for the same job. Stories resonate and are memorable – both qualities that will let the job seeker stand apart. You can check out your inspired post at http://thejobshopper.com/2010/07/your-most-powerful-memorable-differentiator-your-stories/
    Thanks for the inspiration.

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