What it says on the tin
Advertising and branding are often referred to as storytelling. But what exactly does this mean? I believe there are three levels of narrative that brands should consider when developing their strategies.
Firstly, there are the literal stories that companies tell about their brands through earned and owned media, advertising being the most obvious example. It’s the manageable and idealised version of the brand. It is the domain of creatives and in the case of advertising, the type of stories that most closely adhere to traditional principles of storytelling, with a three-act structure, plot and characters. It is the form of stories marketers refer to when they strategise, however, an understanding of two higher levels of narrative is necessary to make these stories as credible and relevant as possible.
The second level is the story that people tell about the brand. In other words, the actual brand as it is perceived in the hearts and minds of real people, as opposed to the version that exists in the utopian parallel spheres of boardrooms, PowerPoint decks and minds of marketers. Although most marketers struggle to grasp it, brands are always a part of culture, a shared frame of reference, which is why these stories are formed collectively. We never experience the product objectively, but through the collective interactions we’ve had with the brand through media, friends, advertising etc. So brands must understand the elements of culture that it interacts with and how these affect the story it wishes to tell.
Thirdly, there are the grand narratives that we as individuals tell ourselves about the world we live in and our role within it. Our worldview and identity are comprised of our values and beliefs and experiences and biases, and creates the filter through which all information is viewed, including the collectively constructed brand stories. This is the narrative within which brands must find their place, either by reinforcing or adding to it; by identifying relevant problems to which it can pose a solution. For the sake of simplicity we view information that confirms our worldview favourably, and that which contradicts it more harshly. However, humans are irrational beings. We take intellectual shortcuts by lazily following any half-decent trend and leader (person or brand), so there is ample opportunity for brands to, not only pay lip service to, but also alter, worldviews. And that’s when truly iconic brands are created. But this implies risk, of course, and unfortunately, medioricy is not risky behavious in the alternative reality where most brands live.