“To connect to people at the deepest level, you need stories.” Rob McKee

Stories are like viruses.

They are ubiquitous – we all ‘get’ stories, no matter where we’re from. They are contagious – tell a story to someone, and if it resonates it’ll spread; the most powerful stories demand to be retold, again and again. And they stick – through the re-telling, they embed themselves in our own and our shared memory.

Anthropologists believe that we’ve been telling stories for as long as we could speak – they’re hard-wired into our brains. They bring communities together, and are our primary way to share understanding and transfer knowledge; that’s why they work with children – they intuitively seem to realize their importance, which is why children are so transfixed by them.

We are surrounded by stories – in the media, on TV, the books on our shelves, the memories we share. We tell our friends what happened yesterday or last week, or when we were on holiday, and we’re telling a story. Anyone who has put a child to bed at night will know how much they beg for a bedtime story, even one they have heard a hundred times; they are drawn to them, mesmerised by them, feeling that there is something intuitively important about them.

There’s an obvious link here with branding. Marketing is essentially about telling stories about the products that we make. Consumers have always subconsciously told stories about the brands they interact with – you just have to sit in a focus group, and it’s all around you: listen to the way they recount what a product does, how they describe when they last used it, what a brand means to them or what it has told them about itself.

It’s a buzz word now to talk about ‘brand storytelling’, but look below the hype, and you’ll see that it’s often simply lip-service, sprayed on; scratch too hard and it’ll come off. Since the invention of the brand positioning model, we have created brands in rational and rigid semantic structures, focusing on adjectives and adverbs, most of which are the product of hours of argument over Roget’s Thesaurus. Stories take you on an emotional journey, and if we want a consumer to connect emotionally to a brand, a story will resonate more deeply than a set of out-of-context words.

Let’s look more closely at what the experts on stories and storytelling have to say about how you create great stories and see what we can learn about making great brand stories.

A critical element of a story is the ‘plot’. Clearly, things happen in stories. As you watch, read or listen, the story unfolds through a series of actions and events, which drive the story forwards to its conclusion. My old Improv teacher used to make us walk forwards when we were improvising a story in order for us to physically feel the story progressing. ‘Story is a metaphor for life, and life is lived in time,’ says Rob McKee. Joseph Campbell studied myths around the world, and distilled to their most basic elements. A story consists of: Order, Chaos, Resolution: everything is fine in the world of the protagonist; something happens to throw things out of kilter; then, after trials and tribulations, things get (relatively) back to normal again.

A story’s sense of progression can be seen implicitly in brands – they help us attain something better than we had before. The message or promise at the heart of the brand needs to echo this. Johnnie Walker is a classic example of this: personal progress, drive & ambition are key to this brand; the striding man symbolizes this. Compare Johnnie Walker, about progress, to Chivas, which reflects the status that you have already attained: static. Imagine a film or a novel, where the hero has already achieved what he needed to do – where can the story go from there? He has nothing to do, to show, to experience. So, all brands need to have a sense of progression innate to them – they have to help move us from one state to another, but they also have to evolve in themselves.

The plot captures the activity within the story in a succession of actions and reactions. There have been several books and articles published that explore ‘plot’, the premise of many of them being that there are only a limited number of plot types. The most recent has been by Christopher Booker, who believes that every story that has ever been told falls into one of 7 buckets: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth. If stories are there to teach you, then each plot represents a different human value and analogously teaches us the consequences of different choices and decisions.

If there are only seven different storylines and every story we’ve ever told is but a version of one of them, then it would follow that there are only really seven brand story types (which surely would seem to make differentiation difficult, but look at the plethora of Hollywood films that adopt each plot type but dress it up in a different, and sometimes unique, way…) In the same way that Booker professes that storytellers can make their stories stronger by embracing their ‘type’ (and in some way conforming to the structure and process that it sets out), a brand owner can make their brand story stronger by closely mirroring the construct of their story structure.

Here are a couple of examples of brands that have great stories behind them and which really embrace their plot type.

Nike has a strong story of challenging yourself, of striving for your best performance and being committed to the passion for that achievement. For Nike, the only thing to get in your way of achieving this is yourself – the limits of your condition, of your stamina and ultimately of your confidence in yourself. What Nike tries to teach us is that there will be times when it will be difficult, it will hurt, you’ll want to give up, but you have to fight through it to win the ultimate battle. Nike’s story is of ‘overcoming the monster’ (just like Jaws, like most Bond films, like Michael Clayton, who overcomes the corporate system…). The monster to overcome is the monster inside you.

The Voyage and Return story teaches us that sometimes life takes us to places that might seem amazing and perfect, but ultimately are ruled by false Gods. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz is mesmerized by the colourful yellow brick road, but realizes that her life is really at home; Andy, the naïve girl in The Devil Wears Prada, ends up rejecting the false world of fashion that had so completely lured her and taken over how she saw the world. This is Dove’s brand story. From its Real Beauty platform, Dove tells us to be wary and distrustful of the beauty industry, and that true beauty is owned and defined by you – you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not. The same way that Andy had to look inside herself and judge whether she was being true to herself, so Dove persuades its consumers to be true to themselves.

Other examples: Rags to Riches can be seen in Beetle, Quest in Johnnie Walker, Comedy in WKD or Budweiser, Rebirth in Smirnoff.

To find your brand story, look back at the history of your brand and find the values that are at its core. Look at how and what your brand communicates now. What is the lesson that it is trying to teach its consumers? What is the meaning that lies deep within? Identify which plot type it falls within in order to make it stronger. Looking at the ‘plot’ of your brand can also help to define where your brand is ultimately going, and what obstacles and challenges it might need to overcome.