The inner workings of a piano as a metaphor for brand story. Photo by Ryan Holloway on Unsplash

In the past decade, developing a brand story has been all the rage. A clear brand story helps us communicate the value of our product or service better. A brand story helps us connect with our customers at a more emotional level. Stories become viral and people pass our brand story into their network with great ease and joy.

Despite this, clients frequently ask me a few key questions:

  1. What makes a good brand story?
  2. Why do I need one?
  3. What’s the difference between a brand story and a narrative?

PotAto. PotAHto. Brand narrative. Brand story.

Let’s start at the end and work our way up the list. Academics build distance between narrative and story because they don’t want to water down their intellectual discussion of narrative. Stories are most often associated with a 6-year-old’s bedtime routine. Narratives, on the other hand, are part of serious discussion. Further, your typical dictionary doesn’t provide much distinction between the two terms.

But it’s helpful to think about some of the nuances. They are important when working in the practical arena of brand stories. So, I offer the following delineation. First of all, a story is an account of events unfolding over time. This is probably what you think it is. Harry Potter. Grey’s Anatomy. That time your Uncle John caught that big fish that got away. These are all stories.

Narrative is scaffolding. It’s the structure upon which story hangs like the great sky scrapers of Chicago. It also supports other expressions. Narratives include experiences, relationships, the presentation of ideas and, especially relevant, even brands. The simple version of the narrative structure is conflict and resolution. It revolves around a tension and a transformation. Someone or something faces a challenge and overcomes it. This structure works well in the brain because it creates meaning. It helps us answer the question that beleaguers us all. “Why?” When we create a brand story we’re often creating a vehicle of communication. But when we focus on the brand’s narrative, we’re attempting to build meaning around the brand.

Narrative is the key that unlocks the mind.

Narratives give us access beyond the deadbolts of the mind to influence behavior. Anything else almost always does the opposite. Behavioral economists have studied how we make decisions and recognize that data has little influence on it. Consequently, we don’t care for bullets, percentages or benefits. Physicians have long attempted to emphasize the potential effects of an unhealthy diet with little success.

If you want to change someone’s life, you have to work in narratives. In Redirect, Timothy Wilson describes what he calls story-editing. Clinicians use story-editing to reshape their clients’ understanding of an event in their lives. It’s a way of taking traumatic experiencing and finding a healthier, more positive meaning to it. One example is reframing the experiences of war vets from victims to survivors. The use of narratives isn’t just for entertainment. Rather, it is the best hack into the brain we currently have.

 Brand narratives create meaning.

Organizations, too, need to use these narratives to inspire the desired behavior. Choosing one car over the other is rarely a decision of features and benefits. It is one in which a person’s choice has influence over how he or she understands themselves. Are they the responsible father with the minivan or the progressive parent with the small hybrid?

Consider the recent move by Lacoste to embrace a narrative of natural preservation. For a limited time, they are offering their iconic Lacoste polo shirts with one iconic thing missing – the crocodile. Instead, they have created and emblazoned a limited run of shirts with animals on the endangered species list. The quantity of shirts available matches the quantity of those animals remaining on Earth. Lacoste has created a brand story that is appealing to the public. Most noteworthy though, it has created a brand narrative that gives consumers the opportunity to demonstrate their concern for the environment.

The transformation of energy.

When I was diagramming a narrative one day, I was representing the conflict of the narrative by showing two characters at odds with each other. I drew two arrows representing each of their different objectives.

Then I saw it. There in front of me were two vectors facing each other. The realization transported me back to high school physics. There I discovered a principle that has stuck with me since. The conservation of energy states that we cannot create or destroy energy. We can only transform it from one state to another. When you play a piano, you transform the energy of pressing keys to the hammers hitting a string to sound waves. You did not lose the energy. You transformed it.

The two vectors facing each other in my diagram matched how we represent tension within physics. The tension of a narrative isn’t just a way to describe conflict. It describes potential energy. And without the potential energy, you don’t really have a narrative. The only way to resolve the tension is to transform the energy. Good narratives are about the transformation of energy. For people, this means taking an obstacle and overcoming it to allow the energy to express itself differently. For brands, it’s about finding ways to catalyze the tension in a consumer issue – a need or desire for example – and enabling a transformation.

Before you get to the brand story, focus on your brand narrative.

So as you venture forth on your journey of mastering your brand story, dig beyond it and into the narrative. Focus on the structure beneath and look for ways to transform the tension in the narrative into a deeper, more meaningful relationship between your brand and your customer.

If you’d like to chat more about your brand story, narratives, or physics, drop us a line and let us know.

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