Branding: What's The Story?

How does the story of a brand get told in a way that doesn't come across sounding like so much hype and hot air?

Think. Creativity. Innovation. Storytelling.

What do these four words have in common? Lots of things, really, but the answer I'm looking for is that they all four are buzzwords. Big time buzzwords that appeared -- more or less in succession -- to take one industry after another by storm.

Buzzwords originate from concepts that have substance to them, and there are those who exercise the original concepts as intended.

IBM can be credited with making Think a mantra of sorts. It was introduced there by Thomas J. Watson at CTR (Computing Tabulating Recording Company) in 1914, which became IBM and adopted Think in a big way, even naming their line of laptop computers ThinkPad.

Then, in 1997, Apple told people to Think Different.

"Think" was done. Somewhere along the way, creativity had sprung up as being what people strived to achieve from all of their thinking. But it wasn't quite enough -- anybody, it seems, can create something -- so innovation became where we all wanted to be: A sort of misty place between thinking and creating, where the magic is supposed to happen.

Elon Musk didn't create the electric car. He didn't even start Tesla Motors. But when he came onboard in 2004, a year after the company started, he led the charge to innovate how electric cars were styled, made, and thought of by the public at large.

That's Musk. But being an innovator without knowing how to innovate is much like saying you're a magician without knowing any tricks. Same with being a thinker or a creator.

Or a storyteller.

Storytelling is the latest creative industry hype bait. Branding is all about storytelling. Selling is all about storytelling. Even storytelling is all about storytelling these days.

Landor took on the challenge of telling the Federal Express story. That included officially adopting the central character's nickname (FedEx) and identifying the story's central theme of timely delivery with a new tagline: The World on Time.

It seems, however, that a lot of people don't know very much about what telling a story is really all about. By looking carefully at the execution of their ideas, you'll be able to discern who is telling a story... and who is merely buzzing about it.

Back to basics

As I teach in my beginning improvisational comedy classes, to students that are trying to figure out how to make a scene work, a story is a lot about structure. Every story, if it's going to work, needs a beginning, middle, and an end. And every scene in that story has those same three elements.

And if a story doesn't assemble these elements effectively, it doesn't work. Think of movies you've seen or books you've read where the middle of the story feels flabby or the ending incomplete. Or where characters or situations aren't fleshed out well enough in the beginning for you to get a grasp of them.

Just as important as that simple structure are the characters. Without a well-defined protagonist (hero) or antagonist (villain), there is little to hold your interest in the story. We need someone to root for -- or to rally against.

And there are often other important characters as well. There's the sidekick -- where would Don Quixote be without his Sancho Panza? Or Han Solo with no Chewbacca? And there's often a mentor or guiding figure: Merlin to King Arthur, Gandalf to Frodo, or The Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi as just a few examples.

Equally important is a story's theme. Usually, at its base, a theme is rather simple: Might makes right. Crime does not pay. Love always wins. Even the most complex tale has such a nugget of human truth to it that serves to drive the story forward and, if properly told, pays off in the end.

Finally, but also as important as the three elements above, is the plot. This defines the journey the characters are on. The course by which the story unfolds. The challenges that the hero must face and, ultimately, overcome. The twists and turns that capture our imagination and offer us enough surprises and rewards to make this story -- hopefully -- different than any other story we've ever heard.

How a brand is a story

There's the tricky part: How does the story of a brand get told in a way that doesn't come across sounding like so much hype and hot air?

Every story starts with a title. In branding, the title is the brand name. The trademark. Which is a funny dichotomy, in that one cannot typically trademark a title. But for our purpose of brand storytelling, the title is the trademark.

As hard as it often is to come up with the name, the rest of the brand is the puzzle to be solved. Where are the beginning, middle, and end? The hero? The villain? Then there's the theme and the plot.

Don't panic.

All the pieces are there, just waiting to be written.

The story could start with the introduction of the branded product. Or maybe it's when the company's ex-president returned to re-launch the company. The middle part can be as easy as a tiny start-up's rags-to-riches climb to success, or the product's hard-fought victory to pass clinical testing.

The ending to almost any brand's story is, hopefully, a happy one, with delighted consumers and a hefty infusion of profits into the company's coffers. Although it could be a third world country's victorious struggle against disease or a smartphone app so revolutionary it changes the way most of us use our mobile devices.

The hero could be the company with the brand. A plucky little startup going up against a megalithic company. Or the protagonist could be the product itself. Or the customer himself, who needs the product to slay the dragons keeping him from getting his work done: King Arthur's Excalibur, if you will.

As for a theme, many a brand's core essence can be put forth in a compelling tagline: FedEx's The World on Time, as mentioned before. Or Nike's Just Do It. Regarding these as themes is at once expansive as well as helping to underline the importance of the story the company is seeking to tell.

Finally, a good plot is what you should strive to create, as it makes the brand compelling. Just as with a good story, a riveting story makes people want to come back to again and again, not to mention tell their friends about.

Ultimately, whether your brand's story is a Cinderella tale, a superhero's origin, or a timeless epic that people will talk about for generations, as the storyteller, it's imperative that you learn how to tell the story in a way that will capture the hearts and minds of anyone who gets the chance to experience it.

Marc Hershon is the Senior Manager for Naming and Verbal Identity in Landor's San Francisco office. He has been working with brand names and writing with words professionally for over 20 years.